Parking Lot Hazard Leads to $4.6 Million Verdict Against Target
Target probably wishes it had accepted a $12,000 settlement offer made by a South Carolina woman who sued the retailer after she was injured by a hypodermic needle that her daughter found in a Target store’s parking lot. After Target rejected the offer, a jury awarded the woman $4.6 million in damages.
In response to the woman’s settlement proposal, Target made a $750 counter-offer, an amount that lawyers typically regard as “nuisance value.” In other words, Target thought the woman had no chance of winning and offered a modest sum to save the expense of taking the case to trial. It appears that the jury had a very different view of the evidence than Target’s lawyers.
Facts of the Case
Carla Denise Garrison parked in the parking lot of a Target store in Anderson, South Carolina. After her daughter exited from the car, she noticed a hypodermic needle in the parking lot. When the daughter picked it up, Garrison tried to swat the needle from her daughter’s hand.
The needle punctured Garrison’s palm. Garrison reported the injury to a Target employee, then visited a clinic to obtain medical care. Since used hypodermic needles are a leading cause of HIV transmission, the clinic immediately began a course of treatment for an HIV infection.
Fortunately for Garrison, she later tested negative for both HIV and hepatitis. Unfortunately for Garrison, the powerful HIV drugs made her sick and caused her to be bedridden. Her husband took time off from work to care for her.
According to her attorney, Garrison wasn’t looking for a windfall. She wanted Target to pay her medical bills and the family’s lost wages. Garrison filed a written offer with the court to accept a $12,000 settlement. Target responded with an offer to pay $750.
Garrison’s attorney told the press, “We tried to be reasonable and not take this to trial. But Target took a really hard stance on it ... and I think the jury sent a message.”
Businesses and their insurance companies sometimes try to send their own message by taking a “hard stance” that is meant to discourage other injury victims with uncertain claims from bringing lawsuits. That strategy backfires when, in a case like this one, a jury perceives the business as being unconcerned about the safety of its customers.
Was Target Responsible?
South Carolina follows the general rule that retail stores are not insurers of their customers. They are responsible for a customer’s injury only if the premises were unsafe, the unsafe condition caused the injury, and the store knew or should have known about the unsafe condition.
Target took the position that it had no reason to know there was a hypodermic needle in the parking lot. It also claimed that Garrison caused her own injury by swatting the needle from her daughter’s hand.
Media accounts have not provided a full description of the evidence at trial, but they do indicate that Target moved for summary judgment before the trial. A summary judgment motion asks the court to award judgment for a party before trial on the ground that there is no evidence to support the other party’s position. The court denied that motion, which suggests that evidence existed to support the jury’s conclusion that Target should have discovered the hypodermic needle but failed to take reasonable steps to keep its parking lot safe.
The case has attracted interest in social media sites. Some people have ridiculed the verdict while others have condemned Target. Since the judge and jury heard the evidence while others can only rely on incomplete news reports, the judge and jury likely had a better handle on the facts than those who are posting opinions on social media sites.
Will Garrison Collect?
A majority of the verdict was awarded as punitive damages. The judge will probably decide to reduce that award in light of a South Carolina statute that limits punitive damages to $500,000 unless the defendant “was motivated by unreasonable financial gain” or acted with an intent to cause harm.
Target will probably ask the trial court to strike the punitive damages award entirely. Punitive damages are available in South Carolina only when the victim’s “harm was the result of the defendant’s wilful, wanton, or reckless conduct.” Target will likely argue that its negligent failure to find the hypodermic needle was not reckless. If that argument fails, Target will probably ask the court to reduce the punitive damages award to $500,000 or less.
Target may also appeal the verdict if it believes the evidence did not support the jury’s finding that it was responsible for Garrison’s injury. Rather than continuing to take a “hard stance,” however, Target may find it beneficial to cut its losses and work out a settlement before filing an appeal.