Supreme Court Rules Woman Injured by Customer in Wal-Mart Parking Lot Can Proceed in Suit Against Store

December 18, 2013

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled today that a customer injured by another customer in the parking lot of the Red Bank Wal-Mart store can proceed with her lawsuit against the store.

The case involves Jolyn Cullum, who had shopped at the store and was placing her groceries in the trunk of her car when another Wal-Mart customer, Jan McCool, backed her car into Ms. Cullum and injured her. Ms. Cullum and her husband, Andrew Cullum, alleged in a lawsuit filed against Ms. McCool and Wal-Mart that Ms. McCool became belligerent after Wal-Mart pharmacy employees refused to fill her prescriptions because they believed she was intoxicated.

Wal-Mart employees, knowing she was alone and would be driving, ordered Ms. McCool to leave the store but did not call the police or take any actions to protect other customers from Ms. McCool. The Cullums alleged that Wal-Mart was negligent in failing to protect Ms. Cullum from the known dangers presented by Ms. McCool.

The trial court dismissed the Cullums’ claims against Wal-Mart, reasoning that Wal-Mart had no duty to control Ms. McCool, a third party. The Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the Cullums’ negligence claims against Wal-Mart.

On further appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals and ruled that the Cullums had alleged sufficient facts to prevent the case from being dismissed at this early stage.

The Court said it is necessary to balance the predictability of the actions of a customer and the seriousness of the harm to Ms. Cullum against the burden placed on the store to take some action to prevent the harm. The Court reasoned that the Cullums’ allegations, taken as true at the motion to dismiss phase, established a duty of care on the part of Wal-Mart.

The Court cautioned that it was not ruling that the Cullums would prevail in the lawsuit nor that Wal-Mart would be found liable.

“We are simply holding that at this stage of the proceedings, Wal-Mart cannot show as a threshold matter of law that it did not have a duty to protect its patron, Ms. Cullum,” wrote Justice Sharon G. Lee for the Court.

Justice Janice M. Holder wrote a separate opinion in which she agreed that Wal-Mart owed a duty of reasonable care to its customers but disagreed that foreseeability of harm should be considered when determining whether a duty exists.

Read the majority opinion in Jolyn Cullum et al. v. Jan McCool et al. authored by Justice Lee, and the separate concurring and dissenting opinion by Justice Holder.