A North Carolina Court of Appeals has ruled that Wal-Mart is not at fault in a wrongful death suit after one of their employees died from injuries sustained during a shoplifting incident.
Rochelle Boswell Pender, 71, was working as greeter in Wilson, N.C. next to loss prevention team-member Sean Respass on the day of the incident. Pender’s job was to welcome patrons to the store when they entered, while Respass was tasked with catching at least eight shoplifters a month.
According to testimony, Respass believed a customer named Joshua Lambert was shoplifting, so he asked Lambert to accompany him to the back of the store for questioning. Lambert initially agreed, but soon turned and sprinted towards the exit. Respass began to chase Lambert, even though Wal-Mart’s loss prevention policy forbids employees from chasing suspects.
As the pair neared the front of the store, both men collided with Pender, which knocked her off her feet. She suffered a fatal head injury as a result of her fall.
Pender’s estate later filed wrongful death charges against Wal-Mart, Respass and Lambert, but the charges against Wal-Mart and Respass were dismissed as they are both immune under North Carolina’s Workers’ Compensation Act. Although he was cleared of wrongful death charges, Respass was fired for violating the store’s no-chase policy.
“The fact that Wal-Mart Associates has implemented a no-chase policy evidences that it prioritizes the safety of its employees and customers,” Judge Rick Elmore wrote for a three-member panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals. “Wal-Mart Associates terminated Respass for violating this policy, further indicating its commitment to safety. Additionally, the record indicates that no prior injuries have resulted from the imposition of the quota system.”
During his trial, Respass argued that:
- Lambert threw Pender into his path
- He slowed down before coming in contact with Pender
- He did not believe that his impact caused Pender to fall
- Lambert was the person who actually knocked Pender over
Elmore agreed with Respass’ version of events, saying “the record indicates that Respass engaged in a foot-chase and accidentally collided with a co-employee. Such conduct does not evidence a reckless or manifest disregard for the consequences so as to warrant a finding of willfulness and wantonness equivalent in spirit to actual intent.”
Lambert was charged with two counts of simple assault, but the charges were dropped after police viewed surveillance footage of the incident. Law enforcement officials also declined to pursue shoplifting charges against Lambert, although the appeals court said the wrongful death suit against Lambert could continue.
Related source: The Wilson Times