Hundreds of lawsuits are brought against Wal-Mart every year. The massive sex discrimination case in the news last week climbed to the U.S. Supreme Court — but most cases never reach such stellar heights. More typical is the litigation of Leal v. Wal-Mart, which is merely a case of life and death.
Romulo de Oliveira Santos, an immigrant from Brazil, died at the age of 47 on the floor of a Wal-Mart vision center just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. His muscles were charred, his skin was coagulated, and one-fifth of his body suffered second and third degree burns. There were bruises and cuts on his face, back, arms and hands. According to an autopsy, Santos had been electrocuted.
There is not much dispute about what happened to Santos inside Wal-Mart on the night of September 8, 2008. He was working as part of an inexperienced, unsupervised subcontract crew as part of a remodeling project at Wal-Mart store #2103 on Providence Highway in Walpole, Massachusetts.
There was no properly licensed supervisor watching over crew members from Italo Masonries, for whom Santos worked. Italo had never done demolition work before. Wal-Mart hired a general contractor to oversee the reconstruction of its Vision Center, and that contractor has subbed out the interior demolition to Italo.
In 2000, Santos came to America on a work visa to pursue a dream. He wanted to become an electronic technician. Santos enrolled in ESL classes to learn English, and he began working on a cleaning crew. Santos would send some of his earnings back to the city of Volta Redonda, Brazil, where his family lived.
Before Santos came to America, Wal-Mart came to Brazil. The American retailer entered Brazil in 1995, and now controls 461 stores, employs 76,000 Brazilians, and is the third largest retailer in the country. Brazil has been a cash cow for Wal-Mart International — which is the fastest growing part of Wal-Mart’s overall operations.Wal-Mart refers to Brazil as part of its “emerging market.”
Romulo de Oliveira Santos was also looking for an emerging market when he left Volta Redonda and traveled to the United States. He was 39 years old when he first entered the U.S. Eight years later, he was inside the Walpole Wal-Mart working a late hour shift — his last.
The construction scene inside the Vision Center was a tangle of unlabeled wires and cords. Wal-Mart had insisted that the remodeling job would proceed while the store remained open. On Santos’ last night, the general contractor, electrical contractor, and Italo Masonry all left no supervisors at the site. But several light circuits were left on, because the renovations could be done quicker and easier by leaving the area “hot.”
One junction box at the top of a wall was left “hot.” Santos arrived at the site just before 10:30 pm — a time when most Wal-Mart shoppers were home in bed. Santos and his coworkers were not warned that a 227 volt circuit powering the overhead lights in the Vision Center had been left live. Santos had no reason to expect that wires behind the walls were hot. It was normal practice that live wires would be clearly marked and labeled, to avoid lethal danger.
One of Santos’ coworkers began tearing down a wall that had been marked for demolition. The crew member, wielding a reciprocating saw, cut through the live wire at the top of the wall. The lights went out, leaving the whole crew in the darkened Vision Center. The crew began to exit the site, when Santos came in contact with the live wire.
According to witnesses at the scene, Santos moaned in pain, and fell to the floor in between a scissors lift and the wall. His crew members rushed to his side, but Santos died within minutes — badly burned from the trauma.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Wal-Mart an immediate stop work order, and listed numerous violations of federal safety regulations. “Workers were exposed to hazards of arc-flash and arc blast while working on energized parts of the circuit breaker panels without proper personal protective equipment,” OSHA wrote. “Employees were exposed to electric shock hazards while performing . . . tasks without de-energizing the circuits.”
Attorney Brian A. Joyce of the Joyce Law Group, the firm that is handling a civil lawsuit against Wal-Mart on behalf of the Santos family, says that Romulo’s death could have been avoided if Wal-Mart had held its general contractor to its contractual obligation to permit only properly licensed and qualified subcontractors to demolish the Vision Center. Joyce notes that the general contractor has a rap sheet with OSHA for hiring unlicensed contractors.
“Wal-Mart’s callous indifference to the safety of construction workers at the Walpole store is not an isolated incident,” Joyce notes. Similar construction-related deaths have occurred in Texas, Nebraska, and Indiana. OSHA has cited Wal-Mart in numerous other cases for its negligence in protecting workers.
“In its ruthless quest to cut prices and maximize profits,” Joyce charges, “Wal-Mart allows cutting corners, especially when it comes to safety, and is willing to risk the lives of construction workers to save on costs. When the sadly predictable accidents occur, Wal-Mart remorselessly opposes attempts by the surviving family members to discover what happened, and to seek justice for their lost loves ones.”
The family of Romulo de Oliveira Santos has waited for almost three years to see justice done in this case. The sudden death of their son who traveled to America was tragic enough — but Wal-Mart’s response since the accident has made the family’s ordeal even harder to accept. Wal-Mart and its general contractor jointly offered the Santos family $25,000 as compensation for Romulo’s early death. Attorney Joyce says that the offer is a slap in the face to the Santos family.
“If Mr. Santos — who was in excellent health when this tragedy occurred — had worked until his retirement age, he could have had another $1 million in salary alone. Apparently $25,000 is the value that Wal-Mart puts on this man’s life.”
In 2010, Wal-Mart invested $1 billion for new stores and infrastructure upgrades in Brazil — 40,000 times what they are willing to pay the Brazilian Santos family. The retailer invests very little for the safety of workers like Romulo de Oliveira Santos.
Now that mediation has failed to produce any justice for the Santos family, the litigation is moving forward. A large judgment against Wal-Mart might even make headlines in Volta Redonda, and help Brazilians understand what a human life is worth in dollars and cents to Wal-Mart.
Readers are urged to call the Wal-Mart store in Walpole, Massachusetts at 508-668-4144 and ask for the manager. Leave the following message:
“I hope that Wal-Mart will do right by the family of Romulo de Oliveira Santos and end his family’s ordeal since his death at your store. Wal-Mart says, ‘Our people make the difference.’ Now its Wal-Mart’s turn to make a difference and respect the life that was lost at your store.”
Hundreds of lawsuits are brought against Wal-Mart every year. The massive sex discrimination case in the news last week climbed to the U.S. Supreme Court—but most cases never reach such stellar heights. More typical is the litigation of Leal v. Wal-Mart, which is merely a case of life and death.