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Roddey v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP

Supreme Court of South Carolina

March 30, 2016

Travis A. Roddey, as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Alice Monique Beckham Hancock, deceased, Petitioner,
v.
Wal-Mart Stores East, LP, U.S. Security Associates, Inc., and Derrick L. Jones, Respondents

         Heard October 8, 2015.

          Appeal From Lancaster County. Brooks P. Goldsmith, Circuit Court Judge. Appellate Case No. 2012-213375.

         John S. Nichols and Blake Alexander Hewitt, both of Bluestein Nichols Thompson & Delgado, LLC, of Columbia; S. Randall Hood and William Angus McKinnon, both of McGowan Hood & Felder, LLC, of Rock Hill; and Brent Paul Stewart, of Stewart Law Offices, LLC, of Rock Hill, for Petitioner.

         W. Howard Boyd, Jr., and Stephanie G. Flynn, both of Gallivan, White & Boyd, PA, of Greenville, for Respondents.

         BEATTY and HEARN, JJ., concur. PLEICONES, C.J., dissenting in a separate opinion in which KITTREDGE, J., concurs.

          OPINION

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEALS

         TOAL, ACTING JUSTICE:

         Petitioner appeals the court of appeals' decision affirming the trial court's grant of Wal-Mart's motion for a directed verdict on Petitioner's negligence claim. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

         Factual/Procedural Background

         The following facts are undisputed. On June 20, 2006, Alice Hancock waited in her vehicle in the parking lot of Wal-Mart while her sister, Donna Beckham, attempted to shoplift several articles of clothing.[1] Hope Rollings, a Wal-Mart customer service manager, noticed Beckham attempting to shoplift and alerted several other employees, including fellow manager Shawn Cox and the on-duty security guard Derrick Jones of U.S. Security Associates, Inc. (USSA), which provided security in the Wal-Mart parking lot pursuant to a contract with Wal-Mart.

         Ultimately, Beckham exited Wal-Mart without the clothing. However, Jones approached her in the parking lot. Beckham ran towards Hancock's vehicle, and Jones followed her in his truck and blocked Hancock's vehicle with his truck. After Beckham entered Hancock's vehicle, Hancock turned the vehicle around and drove towards the parking lot's exit, with Jones following. Hancock exited the parking lot onto a highway, and Jones followed. Approximately two miles from Wal-Mart, Hancock's vehicle left the highway and crashed. Hancock died at the scene of the accident.

         Travis Roddey, the personal representative of Hancock's estate (Petitioner), brought an action alleging negligence on the part of Wal-Mart, USSA, and Jones. At trial, there was varying witness testimony, especially with regard to the course of events that occurred between Jones and the two Wal-Mart customer service managers--Rollings and Cox--and between Jones and Beckham.

         Beckham testified that when she exited Wal-Mart, she heard Jones yelling from his vehicle, " Hey, I need to talk to you." According to Beckham, Jones " zoomed in on [them]" and blocked Hancock's vehicle as she entered Hancock's backseat. Beckham testified that she remained crouched in the backseat as they drove, but looked up periodically to see Jones following behind them at a close distance with his emergency lights on and frequently flashing his high beam headlights. Beckham testified that about two miles from Wal-Mart, Hancock remarked that " he's still on our ass," Beckham observed Jones " on [their] bumper," and then Hancock's vehicle " shot off to the left" and crashed.

         Rollings testified that when she saw Beckham attempting to shoplift, she radioed Cox,[2] and instructed the door greeters to stop Beckham and ask for a receipt if she exited the store. Rollings explained that she then walked to the parking lot and notified Jones of the suspected shoplifting. Rollings testified that she did not have authority or responsibility over Jones, and that she did not intend for Jones to approach, delay, or stop Beckham. Rollings acknowledged that Wal-Mart policy prohibited employees from pursuing shoplifters beyond the parking lot,[3] but testified that she could not radio Jones to tell him to stop pursuing Hancock's vehicle because only one person could speak into the radio at a time, and other employees were using the radio during the incident. Further, she remembered Cox telling Jones to " [j]ust get the tag number [from Hancock's vehicle,]" but was unsure whether Cox knew that Jones was pursuing Hancock's vehicle when Cox gave the instruction to Jones.

         Cox testified that the night of the incident, Rollings notified her of Beckham's shoplifting. After Beckham abandoned the clothing and exited Wal-Mart, Cox walked outside and saw Jones driving down the aisle of the parking lot where Hancock's vehicle was parked. Cox testified that Hancock's vehicle struck a median in the parking lot and headed toward the exit, at which point Cox instructed: " Get her tag number." Cox testified that she did not intend for Jones to follow Hancock out of the parking lot and acknowledged that it was Wal-Mart policy not to pursue shoplifters, but stated that Jones was not a Wal-Mart employee. According to Cox, she observed Jones's truck two car lengths behind Hancock's vehicle as they exited the parking lot, but that Jones was less than two car lengths behind as she saw them driving away.

         Jones testified that the night of the incident, he received a call on his radio informing him that Beckham shoplifted and that she was exiting Wal-Mart. According to Jones, he asked: " [W]hat do you want me to do because I'm a security officer; I'm not a police officer. I cannot detain, so what do you want me to do?" Jones testified that he was instructed to delay Beckham by talking to her. When he saw her exit the store, he attempted to engage her in conversation, at which point she ran to Hancock's vehicle. Jones testified that he then blocked Hancock's vehicle with his truck " because the whole time all [he was] hearing from [Wal-Mart] was, 'You've got to get that license plate tag. We need that license plate tag number.'" Jones testified that at the time, he was under the impression that if he did not get the license plate tag number, he could be fired for not doing his job. According to Jones, both Rollings and Cox repeatedly instructed him to get the license plate tag number. After telling them that he could not see the tag number and that Hancock's vehicle was " about to leave the parking lot," Jones testified that through the radio, someone said, " Man, well, you got to do what you got to do. You need to get that license plate tag number."

         Jones knew that he was not supposed to leave the parking lot, but stated that he felt pressure due to the instruction to " do what you got to do," which Jones interpreted to mean pursuing Hancock's vehicle beyond the parking lot. Jones testified that even after he told Wal-Mart employees over the radio that Hancock's vehicle was leaving the parking lot, Wal-Mart employees continued to instruct him to obtain the license plate tag number. Jones stated that he was in radio communication with Wal-Mart employees until a highway on-ramp, where he witnessed Hancock's vehicle almost cause an accident. He then lost sight ...


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