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Created: February 20, 2006
Latest Update: February 20, 2006
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://atlanta.bizjournals.com/atlanta/stories/2003/07/21/story4.html. Original URL, consulted: February 20, 2006.
Atlanta Business Chronicle - July 21, 2003
From the July 18, 2003 print edition
Personal injury lawsuits hit Home Depot
Darlene Gardner was standing in the aisle of a Home Depot store in Silver Spring, Md., on Sept. 15, 2000, when, according to court records, a box fell off a shelf and struck her on the left side of the head, knocking her into the store's shelving.
She and her husband, Judge Wendell Gardner of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, sued the company for $850,000, citing permanent damages to her head, neck and left knee, which required surgery.
The Gardners' lawsuit is one of about 235 filed against the company in federal courts since 2001 by people who claimed they were injured in the company's stores, according to an Atlanta Business Chronicle search of a database of federal court cases.
The database, operated by the federal government, includes lawsuits filed in all but six of the nation's U.S. district courts. (There is no central source of information about lawsuits filed in state courts.)
The Home Depot Inc. (NYSE: HD) settled the Gardners' lawsuit in March, 17 months after it was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Like almost all the settlements the company makes with injured customers, the details aren't available to the public, sealed by a confidentiality agreement.
Gardner declined to comment. Home Depot also declined to comment. "We do not discuss litigation," said John Simley, a spokesman for the country's second-largest retailer.
So far this year, 55 lawsuits alleging injuries in Home Depot stores have been filed in federal court, the Chronicle's search of the database showed. During the same time period, 30 such lawsuits have been filed against Lowe's Cos. (NYSE: LOW), Home Depot's largest competitor with about 875 stores. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT), the nation's largest retailer with more than twice as many stores as Home Depot, has had 257 federal personal injury lawsuits filed against it so far this year, the Chronicle's search showed.
In 2002, there were 94 federal personal injury lawsuits filed against Home Depot in federal courts. There were 33 filed against Lowe's last year.
Home Depot declined to confirm or deny the number of cases listed in the federal database or to respond to any of the specific allegations made in the lawsuits.
Chris Ahearn, a spokesperson for Lowe's, said the company's internal records indicate that fewer lawsuits have been filed against the company than the federal database shows. She declined to disclose the company's internal information on lawsuits.
"We've actually been seeing a downward trend," Ahearn said.
Home Depot said in a state court hearing in Cobb County last month that it keeps information on accidents in its stores but doesn't make it publicly available. Home Depot has a reputation among trial lawyers as a formidable opponent. Home Depot won't discuss its legal strategies, nor will it disclose the size of its legal department or the number of law firms it uses to fight the lawsuits. Court records indicate the company routinely uses law firms within the jurisdiction of each lawsuit.
Court records provide some insight into the company's defense against lawsuits from customers who claim to be injured in its stores. In many cases, including the Gardners' case, Home Depot blames the customer, claiming the customer caused the accident by his or her own negligence.
In some cases, the company blames its vendors. Last July, Serafina Sama sued the company after she was injured by a display of rocks that fell on her in a Catonsville, Md., store. Seven months later, Home Depot sued the company that sold the rocks to the store, claiming that the vendor was responsible for maintaining the store display. The lawsuits were settled in May but available court records don't contain the final terms of the settlement.
Who's at fault?
Home Depot has won cases based on its defense of "contributory negligence" by its customers.
Last April, a federal judge in Springfield, Mass., dismissed a lawsuit by a woman who broke both wrists when she fell in a Home Depot store. She claimed she slipped in the store's garden department because the floor was wet and dirty. The company claimed she climbed onto a stack of potting soil and fell while trying to remove a bag.
Home Depot claimed in court filings that it was required only to "maintain its premises in a reasonably safe condition" and warn customers of dangers.
"Home Depot was not required to meet an unreasonable standard of perfection, but rather only to exercise reasonable care," the company's attorneys stated in court documents.
The judge agreed with the company that the customer acted recklessly and granted it a summary judgment dismissing the lawsuit.
A federal judge in Nashville, Tenn., who dismissed a personal injury lawsuit against the company last year, ordered the man who filed it to pay the company $1,195 in legal fees.
In another case last year, a jury in Springfield, Mass., agreed with Home Depot's defense that the customer contributed to the accident that injured him. The jury awarded Hilario Marquez $55,000 but reduced the amount to $30,250 after determining that he was 45 percent responsible for the accident. Home Depot unsuccessfully appealed the case. Bordering on the bizarre
Some of the injuries in the stores border on the bizarre. A lawsuit still pending against the company in the Eastern District of New York asks for $1 million for a man who claims he was injured when an employee fell from a ladder and landed on him.
A case filed last year in the Charleston, S.C., division of federal court claims that an employee beat up a customer. Ernest Grasso said in his lawsuit that he asked for help to put lumber he purchased into his car. When the employee assigned to assist him refused to help lift the lumber into the car, Grasso returned to the store and complained. The employee "became irrate [sic] and began pushing and shoving Plaintiff, grabbed Plaintiff, wrestled him to the ground and proceeded to slam and grind Plaintiff's head and face into the pavement, all the while screaming threats and obscenities at Plaintiff," the lawsuit states.
Home Depot agreed in January to pay Grasso $10,000 to settle the lawsuit. When the company sent the final documents to Grasso in February, a confidentiality agreement was included. Grasso refused to sign the agreement and the case remains unresolved, according to court records.
Home Depot also fights lawsuits outside the courtroom. According to the July 21 issue of Forbes magazine, Home Depot is a major contributor to the Institute for Legal Reform, a division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce formed two years ago to support the election of judges the chamber considers favorable to its corporate members.
Large companies, including Home Depot and DaimlerChrysler AG (NYSE: DCX), have contributed a total of about $60 million during the past two years to the effort. Most of it was passed on as campaign contributions to judges the chamber supported, Forbes reported.
Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, didn't respond to requests for interviews about Home Depot's role in the movement that Forbes describes as the "war on judges." However, Forbes describes a 2000 meeting between Donohue and Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, in which Marcus expressed outrage at the number of lawsuits that are filed against corporations.
"Every time I sit down with a CEO, I'm told their major economic problem is the trial lawyers," Forbes quoted Marcus as telling Donohue. "I have never seen such fear and intimidation in my life."
Marcus had retired from Home Depot by the time of the meeting with Donohue but he still helped Donohue raise $8 million for the effort that year.
Simley confirmed that Home Depot supports the chamber's Institute for Legal Reform but declined to reveal the amount the company contributes.
"Most Fortune 100 companies support it in some way," Simley said. "It's a way we can advance our own interests."
Reach Lovel at email@example.com.