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Like the legendary “hot McDonald’s coffee in the lap” or the “finger found in the Wendy’s chili bowl”, it’s tempting to mock the merits of a lawsuit that blames Walmart for not double-bagging its groceries. Do we not have anything better to sue each other for?

But it’s a little different when somebody dies. You can argue the merits of the case, but you can’t really make fun of a man who lost his wife due to a freak accident after a Walmart shopping trip.

What a way to go.

In a case originally filed locally but transferred to federal court this week, William Freis of Plattsmouth, Nebraska is holding Walmart responsible for the 2010 death of his wife Lynette. In April of that year, he says, Mrs. Freis went grocery shopping at Walmart and purchased a 2-pound bag of rice and two 42-ounce cans of La Choy Chinese food. It was all put into one plastic grocery bag.

As she left the store, the lawsuit claims, the flimsy bag broke. One of the cans landed on Mrs. Freis’ right foot, causing a deep cut and breaking her big toe.

And then things got worse. She developed an infection, the suit alleges, which ultimately spread throughout her body. Antibiotics and two surgeries couldn’t save her. Nearly a year later, Mrs. Freis died.

The lawsuit seeks more than $656,000 from Walmart, and the manufacturer and the distributor of Walmart’s plastic bags. The suit says not only was the bag defective, but the store was negligent in not properly training its employees to avoid overfilling bags, and double-bagging when necessary.

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Even the most cold-hearted critics of frivolous lawsuits must feel some sympathy for Mr. Freis (not to mention his wife). Whether or not you believe it’s appropriate to sue over a freak accident, the case is actually not without precedent. Walmart has faced similar lawsuits over its plastic bags before.

In one incident that had a much less tragic ending, a couple in suburban Pittsburgh sued the retail giant in 2004. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported at the time that Brenda Sager accused a cashier of stuffing a jar of mayonnaise, a bottle of ketchup, three cans of fruit, a bottle of salad dressing, and a bottle of mustard into one plastic bag. The overstuffed bag, she said, broke after she took it home. The lawsuit claimed she suffered “cracked and damaged toenails” – for which she sought $30,000. Her husband Ronald joined in, seeking an additional $30,000 for the loss of his wife’s “comfort and her attention.”

And, believe it or not, the lawsuit was not laughed out of court. Just as the case was ready to go to trial, Walmart and the Sagers settled for an undisclosed amount. Walmart denied any wrongdoing, but the Sagers got a little something for all their suffering.

A similar case in Canada actually went to trial in 2006. This time, the defendant was Safeway, and the plaintiff was Jody Ann Logan of suburban Vancouver, British Columbia. According to an article in the Vancouver Sun, Logan claimed a shopping bag packed full of two 2-liter soda bottles, a 2-liter milk carton and a tub of margarine burst in a Safeway parking lot, causing her to injure her foot, and also her hand as she tried to get out of the way of the falling groceries.

For seven long days, the court heard testimony from a store manager who detailed the training that cashiers get in proper grocery-bagging technique, from Logan who recounted her traumatic experience, and from the cashier who denied packing all of those heavy products into just one bag. The judge not only ruled in Safeway’s favor, she ordered Logan to pay Safeway’s legal costs.

The manufacturer of the broken bag, though, caved and gave her $15,000.

Today, in an age when virtually everything is photographed and uploaded, it seems like this is a problem that happens all the time. It’s not uncommon to see images posted on retailers’ social media sites, showing shattered jars and bottles on the ground or the floor, with a torn plastic grocery bag nearby. The angry customers demand action, or at least hope to shame the stores into doing something about their flimsy bags.

Most of us can relate. It’s one of life’s little annoyances, after all. But as one Nebraska man has found out the hard way, it could be a whole lot worse.

2 Comments

  1. and this is why you should use resuables.

  2. It’s not really all the different from the “hot McDonald’s coffee in the lap” lady. She spent more than a week in the hospital getting skin grafts for her third-degree burns. If she had gotten an infection she would have probably died too.

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