Prices aren’t only things falling / Injuries Mount at Warehouse Stores

Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart and other retailers experience falling merchandise and legal cases associated to workplace injuries and customer accidents.

Astronaut Jean-Loup Chretien has flown to two space stations – once to Salyut 7 on a trip with Soviet cosmonauts and twice to Mir.

When he rejoined NASA last year, the 63-year-old brigadier general in the French Air Force hoped to make history by becoming the first person to visit three space stations.

But he says his dream of flying to the international space station died when he went to buy some screws at a Home Depot in Webster last year.

As he stood in an aisle looking over items, a 68-pound box with a drill press inside dropped off a shelf about 9 feet up, injuring his neck, head and shoulders, according to court papers.

“It’s a miracle it didn’t kill me,” said Chretien, who retired from NASA because of his injuries and now works for a Houston-area company.

Others haven’t been so lucky. Three people were killed by falling merchandise in separate incidents at Home Depots in 1999 and 2000. Thousands of others report being injured by falling merchandise in super warehouses and huge discount-retail stores each year.

Critics of the safety record at super warehouses such as Home Depot, Lowe’s, Sam’s Club and Costco say forklifts operating during business hours and “sky shelving” – the retail world’s name for stacking racks of goods high – pose dangers to an unaware public.

Discount retailers such as Wal-Mart also have had similar problems of goods falling from high shelves, plaintiffs’ lawyers and others say.

“People think these stores are like any other retailer they have gone into in previous years,” said David Slaughter, Chretien’s lawyer. “They don’t perceive the dangers posed by stacking goods high. And they certainly don’t perceive you might go in there and be killed.”

Bill Wertz, spokesman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart, said the number of injuries in that chain’s stores is overblown.

“We have very few serious injuries in our stores,” he said. “There have been very few incidents involving poorly secured merchandise, and we regret every one of them.”

Officials at Atlanta-based Home Depot refused to be interviewed about the falling-merchandise issue. In a short prepared statement, company officials wrote: “Home Depot is firmly committed to providing a safe and comfortable shopping environment for our customers and associates. The Home Depot continues to research and develop new safety practices that improve our stores’ safety because no accident is acceptable.”

Chretien, the first non-American to be designated a U.S. astronaut, was looking at screws on Sept. 22, 2000, when he noticed two boys standing near him look up. Before he could react, he was hit by the box.

A forklift in the next aisle had pushed the box from the shelf, Chretien said. He was knocked to the floor, and a nearby cart was sent tumbling. Doctors have ruled he cannot fly because of a serious disc injury in his neck that causes him chronic pain.

“I started flying at 16. It has been my life,” Chretien said. “That’s over now. I got very angry because of that.”

Others have been injured in super warehouses locally. Mike McGrath was squatting, reading a label on a spray paint can at a Home Depot on Dickenson Road in southeast Houston on Aug. 25, 1999.

“I hear a rumbling noise,” McGrath said. “A lady at the cash register yells at me, `Get out of there and get out of there now.’ I look up and see these 5-gallon paint cans coming at me. They practically beat me half to death.”

Five of the eight cans, falling from about 10 feet above, struck him on his neck, back and arm, said Scott Callahan , his lawyer.

A forklift working in the next aisle had knocked the cans from the rack. The forklift driver tested positive for marijuana and was fired, according to court papers.

McGrath, 41, suffered disc injuries in his neck, tore ligaments in his knee and suffered a severe ankle injury. He has trouble walking, especially on stairs, and cannot return to his former job as a steelworker.

Home Depot reached a confidential settlement with McGrath earlier this year.

McGrath’s and Chretien’s accidents were preventable, their lawyers said. They would not have happened if Home Depot had put a plate or cable between the rear of one aisle’s shelves and the rear of shelves facing the next aisle, the lawyers said.

A forklift in each accident knocked goods from one shelf into goods on the shelf facing the next aisle, sending the latter goods tumbling, the lawyers said.

Incidents and cases elsewhere include:

A 79-year-old woman from Santa Monica, Calif., died in November 1999 after a heavy load of latticework was dropped on her at a Home Depot in Los Angeles.

A 3 -year-old girl was killed at a Home Depot in Idaho in May 2000 when a countertop dropped from a forklift, splintered and a piece shot into her.

A 41-year-old man was killed when a load of lumber fell on him at a Home Depot in Connecticut in July 2000.

A 30-year-old man suffered brain injuries when struck by falling boxes of toys in a Las Vegas store. Wal-Mart paid $11.4 million in July to settle the man’s lawsuit.

Also in July, a jury in Baton Rouge, La., awarded $1.45 million to a man disabled after a bag of sand fell on him at a Home Depot.

Lowe’s, Kmart, Toys R Us and other stores have been sued numerous times as well for falling-inventory injuries.

It is difficult to get a handle on the number of people injured by falling merchandise because the stores say the information is confidential. No federal agency collects statistics.

In a lawsuit settled in San Jose, Calif., Home Depot estimated that 185 injury claims were filed against it weekly in 1998, many because of falling merchandise, according to the California State Firefighters Association. The association drafted the sky-shelving law passed two months ago in California.

During a case in California, Wal-Mart revealed that 17,180 claims were filed from 1989 to 1994 by customers who said they were injured by falling merchandise.

A third of the Wal-Mart claims were made by people who reported being struck in the head, according to Gary M. Bakken of Analytica Systems International in Tucson, Ariz., who analyzed the first 7,036 claims.

Wal-Mart spokesman Wertz said the 17,180 figure is not a meaningful number because it includes reports by customers who dropped something small out of a shopping cart onto themselves.

Wal-Mart’s size also should be taken into account, Wertz said. More than 2,670 Wal-Marts and 486 Sam’s Clubs are in operation nationwide and another 1,100 Wal-Marts are in operation in other countries. An estimated 100 million people come into the Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores nationwide weekly, Wertz said.

“We do what we feel is needed for safety,” he said. “There is a danger in everyday living. Accidents can happen despite the most vigilant precautions.”

Callahan , McGrath’s lawyer, said lawyers have begun specializing in falling-merchandise cases.

Jeffrey Hyman, a Denver lawyer, says he has won all 11 of his falling-merchandise trials against Wal-Mart, winning more than $10 million in court awards.

Chris Parks of Beaumont, another of Chretien’s lawyers, said Home Depot closely guards falling-merchandise statistics in part because it fears sales could plummet if customers knew of the stores’ dangers.

Home Depot’s founders tried to create a “wow” factor by stacking items from floor to near the ceiling, Parks said.

“It’s marketing,” Parks said. “They want you to think it’s a warehouse. Home Depot knowingly risks the safety of their customers every day to increase their profits.”

The stores have taken steps to improve safety. Some stores are shrink-wrapping items on the highest shelves. Wal-Mart has added small lips to prevent merchandise from sliding off shelves, Wertz said.

Most warehouse stores put banner barricades at the ends of an aisle where a forklift is operating and the next aisle over. A spotter is supposed to prevent customers from coming up the aisles.

Home Depot began curbing the use of forklifts during peak hours and created 130 safety managers to oversee safety issues at its 1,174 stores nationwide.

Critics say the stores do not always adhere to their policies. No banner barricades were put up to keep McGrath and Chretien out of aisles, their lawyers say.

“They talk about” safety policies, Parks said, “but they don’t follow through.”

Hyman said the stores oppose adding rails or other devices to secure items.

“If you go into any of these stores, they haven’t changed their system in the last 10 years,” Hyman said. “They do shrink-wrap, but they don’t put any restraining devices on the top shelves. It would take them more time and people to get merchandise off the top shelf.”

Callahan and Slaughter say it is time for other states to turn to legislation.

“Right now, the only requirements these stores are operating under in Texas are fire codes and a few OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations,” Callahan said.

Chretien plans to go forward with his case even though he says Home Depot’s lawyers have broached the idea of working out a settlement. There will be no settlement, Chretien said, until Home Depot agrees to make safety improvements.

“I could not look at myself in the mirror if another person was killed,” he said.

Bill Murphy
Houston Chronicle
December 17, 2001