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Jury awards $7.5 million in Walmart watermelon case


A man reaching for a watermelon at a Walmart left the store in an ambulance. An Alabama jury has awarded him $7.5 million for his broken hip and associated losses and suffering, plus punitive damages.

After big personal injury verdicts like this, we don’t always hear the rest of the story. Walmart will appeal. Sometimes these verdicts stand. Sometimes the award is reduced. Sometimes the judgment is reversed on appeal. It might be a long time before Henry Walker receives the money — if he ever sees any of it.

Walmart was found negligent and “wanton” with its displays

In June 2015, Henry Walker, a retired sergeant, stepped up on a pallet to retrieve a watermelon from a display. His foot became caught between the slats of the pallet, causing him to fall and shatter his hip bone. The active 61-year-old, who played basketball several times a week, now uses a walker to get around.

At trial, jurors saw security footage of other people catching their feet in the side opening of the pallet. They heard testimony that other stores use pallet guards to prevent such injuries. The jury awarded $7.5 million: $2.5 million in compensatory damages and $5 million in punitive damages. Walmart is appealing the “excessive” damages.

A big verdict doesn’t always end in a big payout

10 years ago, a Colorado truck driver was injured while making a Walmart delivery. Holly Averyt slipped on frozen grease on a ramp in 2007, suffering disabling spinal injuries and later removal of one of her vertebrae. A jury awarded $15 million, the largest verdict ever for a slip-and-fall. Walmart appealed, and the damages were reduced to $10 million to reflect a statutory cap on non-economic damages. Walmart then moved for a new trial, which was granted before the Colorado Supreme Court nullified the retrial and let the original jury award stand.

Averyt eventually received $10 million, but the legal process took more than 5 years and the amount was reduced by one-third. This is not uncommon for big lawsuits that make the news.

Remember the McDonald’s hot coffee case?

Many people – especially those who clamor for tort reform – cite the famous McDonald’s lawsuit as proof of a broken, get-rich-quick system. Here’s what really happened. A 79-year-old woman suffered third-degree burns to her thighs and her privates, and needed skin grafts. She asked McDonalds for $20,000 to cover her medical bills. They offered $800.

So she sued, and a jury awarded her $200,000 for her medicals and lost wages. The jury also tacked on $2.7 million in punitive damages because McDonald’s coffee had badly burned many people. A judge who thought the punitive damages were excessive reduced the amount to $600,000. After years of wrangling, the woman eventually settled with McDonald’s for less than the court-authorized figure.

The latest Walmart verdict, and an even bigger verdict against Johnson & Johnson, will predictably lead to calls for caps on damages and other reforms. Do you think $7.5 million is too much? Should there be a maximum award … or no limits on compensation?