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Wal-Mart Wins Corny Decision
by Ron Davis
An employee of a vendor located at a Texas shopping center has failed in his attempt to force the center’s owner to pay the medical bills for an injury he suffered there.
The shopping center, located in San Antonio, is owned by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and the vendor owns a roaster that sells hot ears of corn to center customers. The vendor’s employee was burned by the roaster when it exploded during his efforts to light it.
The vendor had received permission from Wal-Mart to set up the roaster in a prominent place at the center. But the Wal-Mart store manager, apparently realizing the potential for injury to customers from the high heat of the roaster, required the vendor to surround it with shopping carts.
That heat is supplied by flames fueled by propane gas, and igniting the gas requires the lighting of a pilot light. Often, however, gusts of wind at the shopping center cause the pilot light on the heater to extinguish.
It was while trying to relight the pilot light after a wind gust blew it out that the employee was burned. He apparently forgot to open one of two vents that prevent a build-up of gas vapors around the heater. When the employee’s match ignited those built-up and highly volatile vapors, the result was a fire explosion that severely burned his face and forearms.
The employee sued, claiming that Wal-Mart was liable for his burn injuries because it "controlled" the corn roaster. And a jury decided that Wal-Mart was 30 percent negligent and awarded the employee $25,000 for "physical pain and mental anguish" and $6,000 for medical expenses. Wal-Mart appealed.
A Texas appellate court reversed the jury verdict, explaining, "The evidence supported a finding that Wal-Mart had the power to forbid the vendor from performing the corn roaster operation in an unsafe manner and that Wal-Mart exercised that power when it required the placement of the shopping carts around the corn roaster. However, there is no evidence that Wal-Mart exercised any control over the lighting of the corn roaster--which is the activity that actually caused this injury. Therefore, there is no evidence to support a deemed finding regarding the right of control under the applicable narrow legal standard." (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Renteria, 52 S.W.3d 848 [Tex.App.--San Antonio 2001])
Decision: July 2001
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