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Wal-Mart loses $1M local slip-and-fall case

JACKSONVILLE - A local attorney has won a $1 million judgment in a slip-and-fall case against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Law experts say the case is unusual in that the plaintiff beat the retailing giant in court, and for the size of the jury award.

The case involves Valerie Dantzler, who filed suit against the mega-retailer in July 2010 in Duval County Circuit Court for damages and negligence regarding a fall she had in 2005 at a Northside Jacksonville Walmart Super Center. The jury on Jan. 12 agreed with Dantzler and her attorney, Mitch Stone, finding that Wal-Mart carried 80 percent of the blame in the suit and Dantzler carried 20 percent.

As a result, Dantzler was awarded $800,000 of the total judgment, which includes $195,000 for past and future medical expenses, $220,000 in past and future lost wages and $585,000 in past and future damages for pain and suffering.

"I think the jury just realized it was just wrong," Stone said of the suit's outcome.

Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Rossiter said the Bentonville, Ark.-based company is reviewing its options in the case.

"We don't believe the verdict and award are supported by the facts and we’re considering our post-trial and appeals court options," Rossiter said.

Slip-and-fall injury fraud cases have been on the rise. The number of slip-and-fall questionable claims submitted to the National Insurance Crime Bureau increased from 325 in the first quarter of 2008 to 565 in the fourth quarter of 2009 and to 997 for the first half of 2010, the most recent data available.

Many large retailers, including Wal-Mart, tend to try slip-and-fall cases instead of settling them to discourage others from filing frivolous claims, said Rod Sullivan, a professor of law at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. And in most cases, the verdict is in the retailer's favor.

"In general, retail stores, particularly ones like Wal-Mart with really good management, win more of these cases than they lose," Sullivan said.

But this case was different for a number of reasons, Sullivan said, including that the jury likely found the plaintiff's story highly believable.

Before the incident, Dantzler worked for years in the banking industry. She had surgery on her shoulder to address a pre-existing condition two weeks before the fall and the day before had a follow-up visit with her doctor with no complaints.

On the day of the fall, Dantzler shopped at the Lem Turner Road store for about an hour and a half before she went to a cashier to pay for her items. As she was heading back to one of the departments with the cashier to address a price discrepancy on some bed sheets, she slipped on a wet spot on the floor, causing irreversible nerve damage to her recovering shoulder, her attorney said.

Wal-Mart presented evidence that safety sweeps had been conducted in the store, but Stone said the company had already destroyed the security tape to prove that. In addition, Stone said Wal-Mart employees did not investigate Dantzler's claim that the floor was wet when it happened. Nor did anyone interview the cashier who was with the plaintiff when she fell.

Although law experts say the $1 million judgment is high for a slip-and-fall case, Harvey Slentz, who teaches business law at Florida State College at Jacksonville, said the jury has to assess existing and future medical expenses and lost wages when determining the monetary value of the case.

"If it's limiting somebody's ability to earn, that's a big deal," Slentz said.

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