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Wal-Mart stores Inc. failed to take security precautions suggested by one of its top in-house lawyers the year before Donna Meissner’s 1996 store parking lot abduction and rape in Beaumont, Texas, a confidential company memorandum shows. When Meissner sued the company over parking lot security, Wal-Mart lawyers failed to turn over the document, despite the order of a Texas trial judge requiring it to do so. Wal-Mart says the failure to disclose the document, a copy of which was obtained by The National Law Journal, was inadvertent. Meissner’s lawyer, Gilbert T. Adams III, calls it “an amazing demonstration of Wal-Mart’s arrogance and disregard of the judicial branch of our government.” The document represents the latest wrinkle in a bitterly fought suit that started as a simple premises security case but became a battle over Wal-Mart’s failure to turn over evidence in cases across the country. Meissner v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., No. A-159,432 (Tex. Dist. Ct. Jefferson Co.). In the April 10, 1995 memorandum, Williams listed nine suits against the company involving attacks in Wal-Mart parking lots in Beaumont, Houston and surrounding areas between 1991 and 1994. “Each of these lawsuits represents an incident in which the individual has either been forcefully and/or physically assaulted on the parking lot with injuries or has been abducted from the parking lot and violently assaulted,” Williams wrote to five Wal-Mart executives, including general counsel Robert Rhodes and Dave Gorman, the corporate executive in charge of store security. “I am providing this information to you so that you can understand the severity of this situation. Also, we are now on notice of the violence that is happening on our parking lots in the Houston area and we must therefore maintain security on these parking lots.” Williams suggested that the company use golf cart patrols in the parking lots, which the company had found to be highly effective in reducing parking lot crime in a pilot program. “Plaintiff’s attorneys point to the fact that even though we have knowledge of these violent acts we have not taken appropriate precautions to keep them from happening or to at least provide more obvious deterrents,” Williams wrote. A little over a year after Williams sent the memorandum, Meissner, returning to her car after shopping in the Beaumont Wal-Mart, was kidnapped, raped and sodomized by a man who has never been caught. The parking lot wasn’t patrolled. In answers to written questions, Wal-Mart spokesman Bill Wertz says the company used appropriate security precautions in its Houston and Beaumont stores, including, in some locations, off-duty police, bright lights and cart patrols. “It is pure speculation to suppose that these patrols would have prevented the Meissner incident,” he says. Still, executives responsible for Wal-Mart security practically raved about the effectiveness of cart patrols in trade publications and internal documents, claiming in a survey involving more than 1,300 Wal-Marts that the company had had impressive results with the patrols. In a store in a high-crime area of Tampa, Fla., parking lot crimes dropped to zero after a cart patrol was introduced. Adams says he believes the man who attacked his client would have been scared off if Wal-Mart had used a security cart patrol. “This would not have happened,” Adams says. “He would have gone somewhere else to do his deal.” Early in the Meissner case, Beaumont Superior Court Judge James W. Mehaffy Jr. threatened the company with an $18 million fine for withholding evidence of the parking lot crime study conducted by Wal-Mart. Mehaffy then ruled that Wal-Mart had waived its privilege claims on documents requested by Meissner’s lawyers, permitting them to take depositions of Williams and other in-house lawyers and paralegals, and to review legal department files of other parking lot security cases. Wal-Mart, represented by a recently retired Texas Supreme Court justice, tried unsuccessfully to have the order reversed by the Texas Court of Appeals and the state supreme court. Mehaffy withdrew the fine only after Williams made an extraordinary, in-court apology. In a scripted statement to the court in June 2000, Williams said: “Wal-Mart recognizes and affirms its obligations to comply with the letter and the spirit of the appropriate rules of procedure concerning discovery matters. Wal-Mart regrets the misguided conduct that has brought us here today and apologizes to the Court, to the plaintiffs, and opposing counsel.” Wal-Mart settled with Meissner, on confidential terms, last spring. Wal-Mart concedes that the memorandum should have been turned over to Meissner’s lawyers. But Wertz, the company spokesman, says the document didn’t turn up when the company reviewed files for material that Judge Mehaffy ordered to be turned over. And he says that, at the time, Williams didn’t remember having written it. Jay Saxton, the lawyer Wal-Mart hired to supervise Wal-Mart’s discovery responses in the middle of the Meissner mess, never saw the document, says Wertz. Nor did Jeffrey Sutton, a partner with the Columbus, Ohio, office of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue whom Wal-Mart hired to review its discovery procedures and recommend changes. (President Bush has nominated Sutton to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.) Six days after being sent a copy of the document for purposes of this story, Wertz said Wal-Mart was unable to find any of the originals in its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. ‘DESPICABLE’ Although the Meissner case is settled, Adams says he may try to use the Williams document to reopen the case or to call for disciplinary charges against Williams. “Wal-Mart’s admitted notice of their security problems, acknowledgement that security measures should have been taken and then concealment of this document — all by lawyers and the upper echelon of Wal-Mart management — is despicable,” says Adams. “In effect, Ms. Meissner has been raped twice by Wal-Mart.” “It seems like that’s all they’ve been doing, sweeping things under the rug, says Donna Meissner. “I wonder how much other stuff they’re sitting on.” Says Meissner: “I have a lot of anger.”

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