Wal-Mart settles stampede case, but there's still plenty of blame to go around

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The infamous Wal-Mart Black Friday 2008 stampede that resulted in the death of a temporary worker seems to have reached a civil settlement. Yesterday, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) released details of an agreement that it negotiated with the district attorney of Nassau County, N.Y.

It has promised to set up a $400,000 victims' compensation fund, donate $1.5 million to the surrounding community, provide 50 jobs to area high school students, and hire independent safety experts to review security plans for Black Friday events at all of its New York area stores.

In return, the retailer was not required to admit guilt or wrongdoing and will not face criminal charges.

In a separate case, the family of the victim, Jdimytai Damour, has filed a civil suit against Wal-Mart.

In many ways, 2008's Black Friday was a tragedy waiting to happen, combining a depressed economy, a society that hadn't gotten used to the idea of diminished expectations, and a collection of ad campaigns designed to get customers champing at the bit.

Throw in a bunch of sleep-deprived shoppers who had been chugging coffee for a few hours, add a temporary employee who didn't know what he was doing, and combine with a hearty helping of poorly-designed crowd control. Mix, stick in line a few hours, and step back.

In some ways, the Wal-Mart crushing is the classic example of a crime without a perpetrator. The people who actually stepped on Damour were being pushed from behind, and were themselves in danger of being crushed. Given that customers were being smashed against the front doors by 4:55 AM, it's hard to fault Damour's actual assailants for their role in his death. After all, few people would voluntarily "accordion" a metal door frame with their faces. On Black Friday, it was clearly a case of move or be killed.

And what of the authorities? Well, the Nassau County police showed up at 3:30, an hour and a half before the crushing, but left without accomplishing anything. They have subsequently attacked Wal-Mart for providing inadequate security; however, that judgment would have been a lot more useful during their original visit, not in the hours following the crushing.

Ultimately, the blame has come to rest on Wal-Mart's managers. They were the ones who printed the ads and stoked up the crowds. They were the ones who continued to push the limits of Black Friday every year, until it had become an exercise in extreme combat. They were the ones who didn't plan for the arrival of over 2,000 desperate, feral shoppers. They were the ones who put an untrained temp worker in the path of the hurricane.

Certainly, Wal-Mart was ill-prepared for the onslaught of shoppers that its ads unleashed. For that matter, the company showed amazing insensitivity in the ensuing weeks with its heavy-handed airing of a "Carol of the Bells" enhanced ad promising to open "more lanes than ever... to make Christmas shopping easier!" The minor chords of the carol, paired with the tag line "Save Money, Live Better: Walmart" yielded a somewhat grotesque commentary on the trampling and suggested that the retailer probably needed a course in sensitivity training.

In Wal-Mart's defense, however, it is worth pointing out that Black Friday accounts for up to 13 percent of the retailer's yearly take. While much of this revenue bonanza can be attributed to the impressive discounts that it uses to draw in purchasers, a large portion of the responsibility also rests on purchasers who line up 2,000-deep for a few dollars off the price of a television set or a computer.

For anyone who doubts the power of consumer greed, it is worth noting that the store's customers argued with police and employees who asked them to leave after the trampling. All told, the event suggests a deep consumerist soul-rot that is truly frightening.

For that matter, the very media that has spent the past few months attacking Wal-Mart was cheer-leading the joys of Black Friday sales a few hours before the trampling. In the face of flagging profits and with holiday sale ads promising fat revenues, newspapers were eager to trumpet the wonder of greedy late-night free-for-alls. The McClatchy-Tribune Business News wrote, "Nothing rivals the thrill of waking up before the sun, or that sprint through the store for the perfect present."

In the end, the rules regarding lawsuits are not much different from those of lunch tabs: The guy with the biggest salary often gets stuck with the check. However, amid celebrations over Wal-Mart's donation of millions of dollars and dozens of jobs, it might be worth remembering that there is more than enough blame to go around.

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