Merchandise Can Kill in Megastores

ByABC News
August 17, 2000, 7:13 PM

Aug. 18 -- When Gregory Real, a deep sea diver who until three years ago fished sea urchins off the coast of southern California, set out to buy a wastebasket at the local Wal-Mart back in 1997, he didn't know it would change his life.

As he reached for the container, the pile stacked high on a shelf came tumbling down on his head, dislocating one of his spinal discs.

Ever since, hes suffered with recurring headaches and disorientation, forcing him out of work and ending his diving career, he says.

Reals case is not a freak accident, according to lawyers who are taking more and more cases like his. Injuries, and even deaths, from falling merchandise are becoming increasingly common, with thousands of people hurt or killed while shopping since giant warehouse stores began popping up throughout suburban America in the late 1980s and early 90s.

While representatives of megastores say claims from falling merchandise represent a small fraction of all accidents, trial lawyers say the number is still huge and people continue to die and suffer life-changing injuries from goods that drop 12 and 16 feet from massive shelves. Whats more, they say, the giant chain stores are doing little to improve safety.

You will not see one sign to watch for falling merchandise or heres a hard hat, said Jeffrey Hyman, who has tried hundreds of cases against some of the biggest superstores. They know the dangerous conditions they have created and yet there is no recognition of the problem except when we try these cases.

One of the most recent cases involved 79-year-old Mary Penruff, who was killed in a Home Depot store in Los Angeles when a pile of falling lumber crushed her after a 19-year-old forklift operator accidentally knocked it over.

My mom is gone and nothing will bring her back, said daughter Maggie Harrison, fighting back tears. But I am outraged at the conditions and that they continue to be sloppy when they would be so easily enforced.