Founded in the 1980s and owned by the Walmart company, Sam’s Club has become thousands of families’ go-to option for bulk shopping. Going out to stock up on household essentials usually feels like a safe activity, and so it should be, but sadly, there are many aspects of Sam’s Club’s “big box” style of retail that pose a serious danger to customers.
If you’ve been struck by a falling object in a Sam’s Club, suffered a slip-and-fall in a Sam’s Club, or otherwise been injured or lost a loved one to unsafe conditions in this ubiquitous warehouse chain, you’re not alone.
Below, we’ll go into detail on why Sam’s Club accidents happen and how to maximize your chances of fair compensation if you’ve been injured in a Sam’s Club. If you’d rather speak to a Sam’s Club premises liability lawyer in Georgia directly, call or message us at any time.
Sam’s Club Slip and Fall/Trip and Fall Accidents Are a Serious Problem
Falls are one of the most common types of serious accidents, and they can happen anywhere. All businesses have a responsibility to check their premises regularly for spills, uneven surfaces, fallen merchandise, and other tripping or slipping hazards, and to correct or clearly mark these hazards as soon as they’re discovered.
Big box stores like Sam’s Club are particularly dangerous in this way, because their vast size and low employee-to-square-foot ratio makes them difficult to patrol for hazards, their unpolished warehouse aesthetic makes obstacles and messes stand out less obviously, and their hard concrete floors get especially slippery when wet.
In August of 2014, a woman slipped on wet concrete at Sam’s Club in Pennsylvania on a rainy day. According to her subsequent claim, she injured most of the major joints on the right side of her body, including her knee, which later required surgery for a torn meniscus. Unfortunately for the victim, she was only awarded $7,481 in court, because Sam’s Club’s medical expert was able to cast doubt on whether the fall was the sole cause of her later condition.
The fact that the woman did slip and fall in a Sam’s Club is not in question, however. Even if the fall truly didn’t cause the full extent of her injuries, it’s not because Sam’s Club succeeded at protecting her.
The standard precaution for businesses to take during inclement weather is to lay out floor mats at the entrances to help keep the floors dry. These floor mats are an important safety tool, but they must be used correctly and accompanied by mopping and other precautions as needed. In the case of the woman’s slip-and-fall, the entrance did have floor mats, but an employee had tracked water farther into the store while pushing a column of carts, rendering the mats ineffective.
In another case in New Jersey in 2010, improperly used floor mats may actually have made a hazardous situation worse. In that claim, a husband and wife say they were entering a Sam’s Club after a light snow, when the husband’s foot caught the edge of a floor mat, causing him to trip and fall. Afterward, the wife says she observed that the corner of the mat was curled upward, possibly from being rolled up for storage. Again unfortunately, the husband and wife did not formally request that the mat be preserved, and by the time of the trial, it had been lost or destroyed.
Working with a knowledgeable premises liability lawyer as soon as possible after a fall in a Sam’s Club is the most effective way for survivors to have evidence preserved and avoid costly mistakes.
Those Tall, Imposing Displays Create a Risk of Falling Merchandise
Merchandise stacked from floor to ceiling, either in freestanding displays or on towering “sky shelves,” is the signature of the big box retail format. It’s also the main reason these warehouse-style stores are so inherently dangerous.
Jam-packing the vertical space of a sales floor appeals to retailers like Sam’s Club because it saves them money on warehouse space elsewhere. It also appeals to many customers, because it feels like a “peak behind the curtain,” to a world of industrial-sized quantities at wholesale prices.
There’s a reason, however, why warehouse spaces are supposed to be kept separate from the general public. In a regular warehouse, every employee who walks through the door is supposed to receive personal protective equipment and intensive training on how to stay safe and avoid hurting others. Even then, warehouses are statistically dangerous places. It’s not reasonable to invite unequipped, untrained customers into a warehouse environment and expect everything to be fine.
The danger of sky-high merchandise in public spaces has been understood since the beginning of the big box trend nearly 40 years ago. Back in 1985, just two years after the founding of Sam’s Club, a load of fabric softener fell from an upper shelf of a store in Oklahoma, killing a woman in the aisle below. A little over a decade later, a wardrobe fell and killed a child in a Sam’s Club in Texas.
Although regulations for securing high shelves have tightened somewhat since the ’80s and ’90s, they can’t erase the underlying issues with storing heavy merchandise high over shoppers’ heads. These accidents still happen in big-box stores, not just fatal crushings but life-altering head and neck injuries from smaller items breaking away and striking shoppers below.
Customers Should Not Have to Share Space with Hazardous Machinery
One of the most dangerous aspects of working in a warehouse is the presence of heavy machinery, especially forklifts. Forklifts require special certification to operate, regardless of whether a warehouse is open or closed to the public, and forklift operators at Sam’s Club are no exception. However, training (and paying) employees primarily as retail associates, while also requiring them to take on warehouse duties, is a recipe for high stress, high turnover, low experience, and frequent mistakes.
A Sam’s Club employee in Kansas fell victim to one of these mistakes in September of 2009. Though there were no witnesses to the accident itself, a coworker found the employee crushed between a shelving rack and the forklift they had been using to move pallets of merchandise. The employee later died in the hospital.
In addition to having to master many different retail and warehouse skills, Sam’s Club employees also face the unique problems that come with performing warehouse work in a crowded public space. This is where some of the greatest danger to customers comes in. For example, the avalanche of fabric softener that killed the woman in Oklahoma was later revealed to have been started by a forklift operator moving a pallet of straws in an adjacent aisle.
Big box stores, with their emphasis on bulk buying, have also made it more common for shoppers to move large quantities of merchandise by themselves, and use specialized equipment to do so. This too carries risks.
In New Jersey in 2009, a man was using one of the flatbed carts Sam’s Club provides for wheeling large orders. It was stacked so high with boxes of chicken that he was unable to see where he was going. Employees helped him load the cart and apparently did not warn him that what he was attempting was unsafe or offer an alternative. While maneuvering the cart, the man accidentally struck a woman in the leg, causing a gash so deep that it exposed the tendons and caused permanent nerve damage. She sued Sam’s Club and was ultimately awarded $1 million, in spite of Sam’s Club’s repeated attempts to appeal the case.
Sam’s Club Is Very Unlikely to Honor Its Financial Responsibilities Voluntarily
When approaching cases of Sam’s Club premises liability, it’s important to remember that Sam’s Club belongs to the same company that owns Walmart. That’s the single richest company in the U.S, and simultaneously the company with the most employees underpaid enough to rely on food stamps.
It’s a vast and efficient machine calibrated for the primary purpose of gathering and holding onto as much money as possible. At every opportunity, it will deny and fight against paying what it owes to the people it profits from or harms. It has its own legal department for this purpose, and saves money on third-party premiums by providing much of its own liability insurance. This means that when the company does pay settlements to people injured by its negligence, it often does so out of pocket, which increases its motivation to avoid doing so.
Case in point, last January in Minnesota, a Sam’s Club accidentally filled several customers’ gasoline-powered cars with diesel fuel, causing serious engine damage. One affected woman reported that Sam’s Club’s claims department promised at first that they were going to take care of her, but eventually stopped responding to her calls and emails. Only after she went to the press did they reimburse her for the approximately $3,000 she incurred in repairs, towing fees, and related expenses.
The experience for people physically injured in a Sam’s Club is often similar, though far more damaging. Medical bills from these accidents can pile up quickly, and while Sam’s Club’s claims representatives may seem friendly at first, their sole job is to keep costs down for the company. There are only two reasons why Sam’s Club will actually pay a settlement: because it was ordered to in court, or because it believes it can avoid a more expensive consequence later by making a quick, lowball offer.
That said, it is entirely possible to sue Sam’s Club for premises liability and win. With the right method and representation, civil litigation can extract fair compensation from even the biggest corporate leviathans.
What to Do If You Are Injured in a Sam’s Club
Immediately after experiencing an accident at Sam’s Club, follow these steps as quickly and thoroughly as you’re safely able to, to keep your options open and set yourself up for the best possible recovery scenario:
- Stop what you’re doing. Some injuries take a while to manifest, and others can be masked by adrenaline, which may cause you to underestimate the severity of your accident. If you continue to shop and go about your day, Sam’s Club will attempt to use this as evidence that your accident wasn’t that bad. Doing so can also make your injuries worse.
- Call for emergency medical assistance if needed, or schedule a medical examination as soon as possible. This not only allows your care provider to check for less obvious injuries and get your treatment started on the right foot, it establishes a record of your condition that will be admissible in court.
- Take photographs of the hazard that injured you, or have someone do this for you.
- Exchange contact information with witnesses to the accident.
- File a report with Sam’s Club to establish a record of the incident, but do not enter into a dialogue with Sam’s Club claims representatives or make a recorded statement. Do not speculate on fault.
- Reach out to a qualified Sam’s Club premises liability lawyer. The sooner you begin working with your lawyer, the better the chances that they’ll be able to preserve other evidence, such as surveillance footage, before it is destroyed. Your lawyer will also act as a point of contact for Sam’s Club’s claims representatives, so you won’t be put in a position where you could be tricked into damaging your case.
The premises liability lawyers at The Stoddard Firm have experience with slip and fall, trip and fall, and falling merchandise cases, and all relevant areas of law. We’re experts in both personal injury and wrongful death, and we’re not afraid to take on corporate giants like Sam’s Club/Walmart. If you’ve been injured in a Sam’s Club or lost a loved one to a Sam’s Club accident, reach out at 678-RESULT or through our online chat function for a free consultation.