In my book,Slam Dunking Wal-Mart, I describe the case of Donna Meissner, who said in 1996 she was abducted from a Wal-Mart parking lot and then raped. She sued Wal-Mart for “premises liability” for not taking the steps necessary to protect its customers in their parking lots. During the “discovery” part of the case, Meissner’s attorney tried to get Wal-Mart to produce a copy of a Wal-Mart security study from 1993, which showed that 80% of Wal-Mart crimes occur in parking lots. The company never produced the report, and the judge in the case, James Mehaffy, levied an $18 million “sanction” fine against Wal-Mart for “discovery abuse”. The judge told reporters: “I hope the stockholders do learn about this, and I hope some pressure is applied to Wal-Mart to make it behave as a responsible corporate citizen.” Now, a top in-house lawyer at Wal-Mart has admitted that his company deserved to be punished, because Wal-Mart did not comply with the letter and the spirit of Texas discovery rules. “Wal-Mart is engaging in a searching re-evaluation of the litigation processes which have led the parties to this courtroom on this day,” said Wal-Mart lawyer Ron Williams. “Wal-Mart recognizes and affirms its obligations to comply with the letter and the spirit of the approriate rules of procedure concerning discovery matters.” The lawyer apologized to Donna Meissner and her lawyers, and said Wal-Mart “regrets the misguided conduct that has brought us here today.” As it turns out, the Meissner lawsuit against Wal-Mart has been settled, and the terms of the settlement are confidential, so it is not clear what level of financial compensation Wal-Mart had to pay Meissner, or whether or not the public apology from Wal-Mart was part of the deal. The Judge, by the way, never signed the order for Wal-Mart to pay the $18 million fine, so it appears that the company got off without being punished for witholding information during discovery.
Meissner’s lawyer indicated that Wal-Mart should have turned over documents relating to as many as 30 lawsuits against the company for inadequate security. When Wal-Mart was fined, they appealed the decision all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which turned the company down. Lawyers who bring suits against Wal-Mart refer to the company as “an obstructionist company” because it has a track record of not producing information requested by courts during the discovery phase of a lawsuit. Such delays cause plaintiffs time and money, and obstruct justice. As they used to say on Perry Mason: If you’re innocent, you have nothing to hide. But if you’re guilty….One of Meissner’s lawyers, Alto Watson, told the court that Wal-Mart had “systematically engaged in a conspiracy to withhold information from victims who have been injured at their stores relatng to a lack of security statewide.” He called Wal-Mart’s behavior “simply reprehensible…There is not an adequate adjective or adverb to describe it other than ‘criminal’.”