You can buy a lot of legal advice for $18 million, but will Wal-Mart get the message? A judge in a Beaumont, Texas case recently fined Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. the sum of $18 million after the judge concluded that Wal-Mart and its attorneys had witheld evidence in the case. In a court case, the “discovery” process is the opportunity for both parties to ask for background information, research, testimony, etc to bolster their case. Wal-Mart has been sanctioned at least twice before in Texas courts, according to Bob Van Voris of the National Law Journal.In 1996, Wal-Mart was fined $120,000 for discovery violations in a sexual harassment case. In that case, Wal-Mart withheld the company’s manual on sexual harassment. The judge said “rarely has this court seen such a pattern of deliberate obfuscation, delay, misrepresentation, and downright lying to another party and to a court.” When Wal-Mart appealed to a higher court, the court upheld the $120,000 fine and the $656,000 sexual harassment claim against Wal-Mart. In another case in Jackson County, Texas, the judge fined Wal-Mart $104,120, plus $1,000 a day for every day the company failed to produce material. The judge in that case said “Wal-Mart has chosen extreme discovery abuse as a litigation strategy. Van Voris writes that Wal-Mart’s legal department has 26 lawyers grooming as many as 10,000 open cases — most of which are personal injury cases (see newsflash article below about falling merchandise). Wal-Mart also retains more than 100 lawfirms across the country to represent them. The Texas lawsuit that led to the $18 million fine, was the case of Donna Meissner, who sued Wal-Mart for having inadequate security in their parking lot after she was kidnapped in the superstore’s parking lot, and then raped. Meissner tried to get Wal-Mart to produce a copy of a survey that Wal-Mart conducted in 1993 that showed 80% of the crimes there happen in the parking lots. Meissner’s lawyers claimed that Wal-Mart was giving different courts across the nation different answers on similar discovery requests about crime at Wal-Mart. The judge who imposed the $18 million fine said: “I hope the stockholders learn about this, and I hope some pressure is applied to Wal-Mart to make it behave as a responsible corporate citizen.” The National Law Journal cites 6 cases of discovery fines against Wal-Mart between 1996 and the present. Three were in Texas, one in Nebraska, Florida and Nevada. In those cases, Wal-Mart was fined for a pattern of false and misleading discovery answers, producing an altered videotape, refusing to produce a nationwide list of falling merchandise cases, and repeated failures to obey judges’ orders for discovery.
Q: How many Wal-Mart lawyers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: thousands. One to hold the lightbulb, the rest to try and rotate the earth. For more information about what one judge called Wal-Mart’s “corporate policy” of witholding evidence, see the National Law Journal article at nlj.com