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Wal-Mart Must Defend Claim Over Chase Death

(CN) - Wal-Mart must face a negligence suit after a security guard was involved in a car chase that led to a fatal accident, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled.

As recounted in the opinion, on June 30, 2006, Alice Hancock waited in her vehicle in a Wal-Mart parking lot, while her sister, Donna Beckham, tried to steal clothes from the store.

Customer service manager Hope Rollings Beckham attempting to shoplift several items, and alerted Derrick Jones, who was providing security in the parking lot.

Beckham left the store without the clothing, but when Jones approached her, she dashed into her sister's car, court documents say.

Despite Jones's efforts to block the sisters' escape, Hankcock was appeal to get around him and leave the Wal-Mart parking lot.

Jones followed the sisters on the road for two miles, before Hancock's vehicle crashed off the highway, killing her.

Travis Roddey, representing Hancock's estate, filed a negligence lawsuit against Wal-Mart, Jones and his employer, U.S. Security Associates.

Rollings testified that she told Jones about the shoplifting attempt but lacked authority over him.

Also, Wal-Mart's policy in shoplifting situations bans the pursuit of a suspect who is in a moving vehicle or who leaves the company's property.

"Let the suspect go, rather than continue a pursuit that is likely to injure or cause harm to someone," the policy reads.

Shawn Cox, another Wal-Mart manager, testified that she told Jones to get the car's tag number.

Jones testified that Rollins and Cox told him to get the license tag number, and that was why he pursued Hancock's vehicle. Jones said he feared losing his job and started the pursuit after he was instructed to "do what you got to do."

The trial court granted Wal-Mart a directed verdict, ruling that Hancock's estate did not prove Wal-Mart was negligent and that Wal-Mart's actions were not the proximate cause of Hancock's death.

The jury ruled that Hancock was 65 percent at fault for her own death, while USSA and Jones shared the other 35 percent of the blame.

The South Carolina Court of Appeals upheld the verdict while disagreeing with the trial court's reasoning. Then-Chief Judge John Few stated that while Wal-Mart employees violated company policies, the jury's apportionment of fault among the other parties was binding.

However, the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned the decision and remanded the case for a new trial.

"We find that there is evidence from which a jury could determine that Wal-Mart was negligent, and that its negligence proximately caused the injuries in this case," Justice Jean Hoefer Toal wrote on the court's behalf.

She stated that the actions of Wal-Mart's employees touched off the deadly pursuit.

"There is evidence indicating that Wal-Mart employees directed Jones to obtain Hancock's license plate tag number while observing Jones following Hancock's vehicle in the parking lot and even after Jones stated that Hancock's vehicle was leaving the parking lot," Toal wrote.

In addition, Toal disagreed with the appeals court's decision to uphold the jury's assessment of liability.

"Considering Wal-Mart's potential liability, it is conceivable that a jury could find that the collective fault of the defendants was over fifty percent and that Hancock was less than fifty percent at fault," he wrote.

Chief Justice Costa Pleicones dissented from his colleagues.

"A jury could (and did) find Hancock to be most at fault," he wrote. "I am unable to determine why the majority concludes, without discussion, that both USSA and Jones should again face a jury trial and the possibility of liability."


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