Wal-Mart, Home Depot and other large retail companies are often attacked for destroying mom-and pop stores wherever they move in, but there's a far more serious charge to be levelled against the superstores. Such businesses often have stores with huge shelves that reach to the ceiling and stock anything anyone could want. There's no inherent problem with that, but shoddy safety practices and a decision to pursue profit over any other concern has made the high shelves unsafe.

Falling products have injured and even killed numerous consumers unaware of the dangers from above. A falling box of paper towels might bruise someone, but falling appliances and furniture do far worse. Walmart had 33,000 injury claims from 1989 to 1995, and Home Depot had roughly 9600 injury claims in 1998 alone. While some of these claims are only minor injuries caused by customers pulling down products upon themselves, others were caused either through employee incompetence or ineffective shelving. Known fatalities, mostly revealed through court proceedings, include Mary Penturff, crushed to death by a load of limber tipped by a forklift at a Los Angeles Home Depot, a woman killed by falling fabric softener at an Oklahoma Sam's Club, a Connecticut man crushed by a ton of landscaping timbers at a Home Depot, a three year old girl crushed by a door at another Los Angeles Home Depot, a Washington woman killed by three thousand pounds of tiles at a HomeBase, a child killed by a toppling wardrobe at a Sam's Club in Texas and a two year old girl killed by a falling television cabinet at a Wal-Mart in Virginia. The crippling injuries caused are just as tragic. One man was permanently disabled, requiring 24-hour nursing, when he was hit by merchandise in a Nevada Wal-Mart. An oyster diver had his vertabrae crushed when he was hit by falling cans, preventing him from ever diving again without becoming a quadrapelgic.

The companies' response? Warehouse-style retail is risky. Carol Schumacher, the Home Depot vice president of communications, merely suggested that "People should be aware that they are in a working warehouse." I don't care what someone did when reaching up to get that extra-large container of shampoo - loads of merchandise weighing over a ton should not be falling down if the customer is dancing upon them. I don't remember seeing warning pictures of falling products or being asked to sign liability waivers at the door. To be fair, companies have placed signs asking customers to request assistance for higher products and introduced safety procedures. Too bad they often ignore their own rules - both Home Depot and Wal-Mart have been caught by courts for creating hazardous environments.

Obviously with such incidents there will lawsuits, and successful ones at that. In 1992 Wal-Mart paid out $275 million in damages, and it paid out $410 million in 1994. Often, the companies offer large out of court settlements, but with the requirement that the plaintiffs keep the lawsuit confidential - public knowledge of the injuries could cost them more than any court mandated payment to date. When a plaintiff does win in court, they often don't see any money for years due. The man in Nevada only won $4 million dollars to pay for his lost career goal of doctor and continual lifetime nursing - and Wal-Mart appealed the judgement as "excessive". The injured oyster diver was only awarded $300,000 for the loss of his career. Because of appeals, he hasn't seen a cent yet. How many broke plaintiffs, desperate to pay medical costs and deal with income loss, have accepted the confidential settlements and hidden the fact of their injuries away forever?

Considering the costs of lawsuits, why haven't the retail companies lowered the shelves and added restraints? One reason is space. Every square foot for storing merchandise in a warehouse costs money. Stocking the shelves high with surplus lets them save millions on storage. The high shelves also draw consumers reassured that the stock will always be available. As for restraints, their non-existence can only be explained through corporate decisions about the cost effective nature of putting in restraints in each store - it's cheaper to pay the lawsuits than pay the retrofitting costs.

Of course, there's some things that can be done. Strangely enough, the otherwise omnipotent OSHA has little to say about the accidents unless employees are involved, one of the few cases the governmental agency doesn't weigh in. The most likely response is either new legislation requiring safer shelves or repeated huge jury settlements changing the cost effective balance of the companies' safety rules. In my opinion, however, refusing to fix a hazardous situation when the companies know the risk of injury and death is depraved indifference to human life, justifying murder charges. I won't be holding my breath for it - corporate responsibility seems to end with a cash payment.

The August 16, 2000 Los Angeles Times story "'Sky Shelves' Can Be Lethal for Shoppers" was the main source of this story.

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