Walmart Responsible for Drunk Driver Accident in Parking Lot?

Here’s a case against Walmart that’s happening close to where I live and thought it would be interesting to throw into GDs.

For those who can’t click the article, here’s the Reader’s Digest version:

Customer goes into Walmart to pick up a prescription, employees notice she appears to be intoxicated. Apparently she’s “a regular” and this behavior is common. Employees ask her to leave the store, she becomes belligerent, but leaves. Drunk woman gets in car, and while backing out, hits a woman who is loading items into her trunk, pinning her to the car and seriously injures her. The woman who was hit is suing the driver, as well as Walmart. The victim claims that Walmart had a responsibility to make sure she was safe while on Walmart property.

I’ve heard of bars and restaurants being held responsible for allowing drunks to leave their establishments, but that’s generally because they’ve served the customer and in doing so are partially responsible for their intoxication. This is causing a bit of a firestorm around here, because they’re saying a precedent could be set for any business. For example: a guy’s had a few beers while mowing his lawn and needs a new spark plug for his trimmer, so he runs to Mom & Pop’s hardware store to grab one. While in the store, Pop smells beer on his breath, but doesn’t think anything of it, and the guys leaves. Was it Pop’s duty to call the police to let the know he thinks the guy may be driving under the influence?

Anyway, I thought it was an interesting case, so I figured I’d throw it out there and see if it takes root. Discuss if you’d like.

If I have reason to believe an employee is intoxicated on either drugs or alcohol I can compel them to take a drug test. The company lawyers force me to provide transportation home for the employee following the test. The theory is, I have reason to believe the employee is incapable of operating a motor vehicle, therefore, it is negligent to put them in a car to drive themselves home.

If I were the injured party’s attorney, I would argue that if Walmart was so sure she was drunk, they should have called the police and not put her on the street with her keys in her hand.

In the hypothetical case you mentioned with Pop at the hardware store, Pop hadn’t said “You’re drunk and disorderly, out you go!” while Walmart had done just that.

Tennessee Supreme Court ruling.

Some relevant quotes:

"A storekeeper must exercise ordinary care to protect his or her customers and other invitees from the wrongful or negligent acts of third persons which he or she has reasonable cause to anticipate.”

"We recognized that a business is not the insurer of the safety of its customers, but in certain circumstances, it may be required to take reasonable steps to protect its customers against foreseeable harm. We noted that “a risk is unreasonable and gives rise to a duty to act with due care if the foreseeable probability and gravity of harm posed by the defendant’s conduct outweigh the burden upon the defendant to engage in alternative conduct that would have prevented the harm.”

So that is the legal rule in these kinds of cases (a legal rule adopted in the McClung case, where WalMart [what is it with this place?] was sued for failing to protect a shopper who was kidnapped at gunpoint, raped, and left to die in the trunk of her car at a WalMart parking lot).

As to the facts, the Court says:

“Assuming, as we must at this stage of the proceeding, that the Cullums’ allegations are true, the harm caused by Ms. McCool was reasonably foreseeable. According to the allegations in the complaint, Wal-Mart had specific knowledge that Ms. McCool presented a threat.”

“Wal-Mart argues that it did not contribute to Ms. McCool’s intoxicated state and that it did not provide her with a vehicle. We agree, but assuming the Cullums’ allegations are true, Wal-Mart knew that Ms. McCool was intoxicated and that she would be driving her motor vehicle in the store’s parking lot; therefore, it was reasonably forseeable that Ms. McCool posed a specific danger to other patrons.”

So, basically, a store has a duty to protect its customers from criminal acts of others, and that there were enough facts alleged to indicate that it is possible that the store didn’t meet that duty in this case.

I will note that this ruling is an appeal from a summary judgment, which basically means that the plaintiff has alleged enough evidence for the lawsuit to go on. It’s not a ruling saying she will win, or that WalMart is guilty, it just says that it shouldn’t be thrown out of court just yet.

Personally, I don’t really have a problem with stores owing their patrons on their property a duty of care, and if they let someone they know to be a drunk driver, they can be liable for injuries to their patrons.

I am guessing that the injured woman is suing Walmart in part because she is more likely to get medical money out of them (court or settlement) than from some woman who probably just drank down her last penny. It may not stick, but she’s gonna try.

Would Walmart employee’s expectation/knowledge that she drove instead of walking or taking the bus be an issue?

I can’t imagine smelling a few beers on someone’s breath unless he has serious personal boundary issues. But I get the point. If he walked instead, but operated a mower drunk, or ignored the cute images of cartoon stick figures getting their hands sliced off, would the expectation be the same?

From my reading of the case, Pop would only owe a duty of care to his patrons, not to everyone in the world who may be injured by the guy he lets drive drunk. So unless the guy runs over someone shopping at Pop’s, they wouldn’t be liable.

As the Supreme Court of Tennessee said: “The Cullums contend that Wal-Mart employees “were familiar with the Defendant, [Ms.] McCool, and her habitual intoxication” and that Wal-Mart employees “were aware that she was alone and would be operating a vehicle in an intoxicated state.” Taking the Cullums’ allegations as true, there was “specific foreseeability” that Ms. McCool presented
a threat to other patrons.”
(emphasis added)

Since the case was still at the summary judgment phase, the allegations of the plaintiff are taken as true, and the plaintiff alleges that they were aware she would be operating a vehicle in an intoxicated state. It is entirely possible that, if it goes to trial, WalMart will raise the walking/take a bus defense (dare I say it would incredibly likely that WalMart would).

What as I see as the problem is that the Wally World employee refused to ‘serve’ her, that is the extent of the legal obligation.

I don’t think it’s that outrageous to believe that if I know of a hazard, invite people onto my property, and fail to warn of/mitigate that hazard then I would be liable for injuries suffered due to that hazard. Ultimately it comes down to factual analysis. How reasonable was it to expect that the clerk would recognize the hazard. If s/he did recognize it, how reasonable were the steps taken to mitigate/warn of the hazard?

Yea, I think the case is pretty strong. I imagine you’d need to be pretty massively intoxicated to get to the point where Walmart won’t sell you meds. And they knew she was driving, presumably knew she would be parked in their parking lot, and thus the fact that she was about to put their patrons at risk by trying to drive off while sloshed was a very easy to foresee hazard.

And it sounds like this wasn’t a one-time thing. She was a “regular” who’d done this before. So the risk was a reoccuring danger. Even if one can forgive the management for not doing anything about it the first time she drove off their lot drunk, I think if it was really a regular thing, they had a clear duty to do something about it.

I think that’s a false analogy. In this case its pretty clear that the Walmart staff didn’t “think nothing of it”, they refused to serve the woman because she was drunk. They clearly new she was sloshed, and believed it was enough of an issue to refuse to sell to her.

And again: they knew she would be driving on their property.

And again: it wasn’t a one-time occurance.

If all those things happened at a Mom & Pop store, then yea, I think Pop might be at least partially liable for his customers safety as well.

That’s not true of places that serve alcohol, but clearly that’s much different than a store where someone arrives drunk.

That’s my guess, just sort of the shotgun approach. Sue everyone and see what sticks. Walmart might give her $50K to shut her up and keep it out of the news.

I’ve had people in my store that have tripped over their own stupid feet. Literally, they were just walking and fell. It’s on camera, they just rolled an ankle or tripped on a shoelace or caught a foot on their own shopping cart and my insurance company hands them cash to keep it out of court.

A question to ask is what store employees could legally do when they believe a customer might be drunk.

They could certainly call the police. But if the customer is headed out the door she’ll be behind the wheel in a minute or so - not nearly enough time for police to arrive. If they try to detain her when she has done nothing wrong, she may have a decent civil case.

But is it the employee’s job to go follow everyone* out the door to see if they get behind the wheel, or hop on a bus or get back on the cab they rode here in or get into the passenger seat of a friend’s car or walk down the street or pass out on the bench by the front door…on the off chance that they might start mowing down pedestrians in the parking lot?

What if she made it out of the parking lot and ran a red light and hit someone crossing the street 10 feet off the property? Would it still be Walmart’s problem?

*Everyone they kick out for being intoxicated, in a store that big it probably happens on a regular basis.

That was my first thought- what exactly were they supposed to do? Ask her nicely to stay until the cops show? Dogpile her and tie her up with Xmas lights and holiday wrapping tape? Lasso her with a belt from the plus size section?

Remind me how they knew this?

I’m taking the plaintiff at their word. The court might find the facts differently, but there isn’t really much of an interesting debate to be had if we assume the complaint is fictitious. Unless some enterprising Doper wants to fly down to Tennessee and do their own investigation, Hardy Boys style.

(FWIW: They mention they’d had similar problems with the same woman before, and most Walmarts I’ve been in have greeters and security guys out front most of the time, so my WAG is that they knew she was in the habit of driving to and from the store even when drunk.)

It varies with jurisdiction, but many locales have a “deep pockets” law - whoever can pay the settlement is bound to. That’s why people sue the driver, the car maker, the police, the town, the state, the business property owner, etc. Even if the driver is found at fault, their likely-modest financial limits mean only that another slightly at-fault entity (like Walmart in this case) digs into their deep pockets to cover the payment.

I’ve been caught in two deep-pockets suits, where my negligence was judged trivial or a few percent (fourth car in a chain-reaction 'bender, etc.), and had to provide complete financial and insurance information for assessment under deep-pocket settlement terms. It’s a huge pain in the ass; the endless deposition and court time and waiting and so forth, even though covered by my insurance companies, ate away at my time and sanity over a real-world $50 in contributory damages.

It wasn’t their responsibility to keep her from driving drunk. It was arguably their responsibility to protect and warn the other customers. They could have called the cops and then followed her out of the store and warned other customers to stay away. If the customer had known there was a stinking drunk woman in the car, she wouldn’t have walked behind it.

If you are referring to joint and several liability, it’s a bit more complicated than “deep pockets”.

Based on the OP - the woman didn’t ‘walk behind’ the car - she was putting stuff in her car, presumably in the row behind the drunk* woman’s car.

I can imagine a walmart minion following behind the drunk* woman with a bull horn - “warning - dangerous person afoot” - and think of the lawsuits THAT would get you.