Two years after a new $500 million shopping center that created 2,000 permanent jobs opened in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City, two youngsters threw a shopping cart from Target over a railing at the mall that landed on a woman standing below. The woman was severely injured and later filed a lawsuit, but rather than holding the two kids accountable, she sued Target, the mall, and a security company. She was recently awarded $45.2 million.
This enormous jury verdict has registered barely a blip on the national news, but it should offend anyone who believes personal responsibility still has a place in the American legal system. Beyond the crushing blow this verdict deals to the concept of justice, it illustrates the kind of unfair risks that anyone in business faces in the United States today.
Before the East River Plaza opened in 2009, residents of the part of Manhattan known to many as Spanish Harlem had to travel far from home if they wanted to shop at popular big-box retailers that are common in cities and suburbs across America. Because of this, the storied Blumenfeld Development Group based in Long Island saw an opportunity.
Building a new shopping mall in New York City isn’t for the faint of heart, though, and from beginning to end, it took almost fifteen years to complete. There were expensive city regulations to comply with and numerous delays. The New York Times reported that a state official who had championed the project later described the delays as a classic example of what is wrong with the development process in New York.
Unfortunately, though, the developer’s problems didn’t end with government red tape. Two years after the opening, two juveniles aged 12 and 13 picked up a shopping cart and tossed it over a railing of a seventy-foot-high walkway attached to the mall and nearly killed Marion Hedges standing below.
According to one report, Hedges suffered severe brain injuries when the cart knocked her to the ground. She didn’t blame the youngsters who were behind the incident, though.
Instead, she blamed Target, where the two boys got the shopping cart, the mall owners, and its security company for negligence. She claimed the businesses ignored past incidents involving kids fooling around with carts, so she named all of them in a lawsuit she filed.
In June, a jury sided with Hedges and awarded her and her family an eye-popping $45.2 million. According to the New York Post, Hedges received $40.7 million, her 19-year-old son who was with her when she was injured received $2.5 million and her husband got $2 million.
After the verdict, the Post quoted Hedges as saying, “We want to help Harlem kids have a chance to do something besides throw a shopping cart on a boring Sunday afternoon.”
While it’s hard for most of us to fathom why anyone would say that boredom is a reasonable explanation for why two youngsters would take a shopping cart from a store and use it as a lethal weapon, it’s all too easy nowadays to fathom a jury deciding to penalize a deep-pocketed defendant for an injury caused by someone else.
The sad fact is that this incident could have happened in any city in America with the same result. Developers, entrepreneurs, and risk takers of every stripe know they can be held responsible for the actions of others who misuse their property or products and then hurt someone. It has become another cost of doing business even if most of us all know it shouldn’t be this way.
It’s not the businesses who ultimately pay, though. They pass the costs on to the rest of us who shop in their stores. In the end, consumers wind up being the real losers.
Bob Dorigo Jones is senior fellow at the Center for America, creator of the annual Wacky Warning Labels™ Contest, and the bestselling author of "Remove Child Before Folding: The 101 Stupidest, Silliest and Wackiest Warning Labels Ever." His weekly radio commentary, "Let’s Be Fair!" airs on radio stations across the U.S. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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