Ventura fisherman Greg Real won a $365,000 court award this week, but says it really doesn't mean that much to him.
Real, a former sea-urchin diver, had stopped by an Oxnard Wal-Mart in 1997 to pick up some razor blades when a stack of hard plastic storage containers tumbled off a seven-foot shelf and knocked him unconscious.
He was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with neck and back problems. He was told that if he ever dived again he could become a quadriplegic.
"I loved what I did, and it was my livelihood," said Real, 35, after Wednesday's verdict. "The ocean is God's second world, and now I've been cut out of that. I feel robbed."
Real said he didn't want to come across as "sniveling" but his medical and legal expenses have piled up to $250,000. So most of the court award will be used to pay off old bills.
"I made a good living before," Real said, pointing out that he had a boat custom-made for his fishing business in 1991. Real would collect thousands of pounds of sea urchins and sea cucumbers that would be sold to a processor and exported to Japan.
Now, Real has a herniated disk in his neck, which he says will require surgery. "I never knew what a migraine was until this happened."
Real's case was argued by Jeffrey Hyman, a Denver attorney who said he has worked on 10 similar cases against Wal-Mart across the country. Since the mid-1990s Hyman has specialized in suing mass merchandisers on behalf of consumers who have been hit by falling goods.
He said Real's accident was among a dozen in the Oxnard store in the last 2 1/2 years. Seventy-five percent of those resulted in head and neck injuries to customers, he said.
"I've been doing these since 1994, and Wal-Mart hasn't done a thing to improve," Hyman said. "The reason for the accidents is that they use the top shelves as mini-warehouses, and they say it would be inconvenient or impractical to change. But all they have to do is put a bar up there to prevent [objects from] falling."
Les Copeland, a spokesman for Arkansas-based Wal-Mart, acknowledged that the shelves are not equipped with restraining bars, but he said none is needed. The company considers safety a top priority, he added.
"The reason we didn't settle this case was that all safety measures were in place," he said. "The items were carefully stacked and we had signs that said, 'Please ask for assistance.' "
He said Real was probably reaching for the containers, triggering their fall.
"We just wish he had waited for the associate to come back with a stepladder to help him," Copeland said.
In an interview Thursday, Real said the tumbling totes took him by surprise. He contended that he didn't even touch the containers, which weigh 5 pounds apiece.
"I turned around because I heard a woman scream, and I got hit directly from behind," he said. "I thought it was an earthquake."
Tyrone Maho, Wal-Mart's attorney, said he was disappointed in the jury's decision because Wal-Mart has an excellent safety record.
Maho told the jury that Wal-Mart takes significant safety precautions and very few accidents occur within the store.
"This store's safety record was beyond compare," he said, contending that in three years, there had been just one accident involving merchandise falling from a significant height.
The Santa Barbara attorney acknowledged that 12 accidents at the store have been reported since 1998, but only one involved items on a shelf 7 feet or higher.
"One of those accidents was a kid pulling a globe on top of himself," Maho said. "Most of them caused minor cuts and scrapes."