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Judge Tosses Racially-Charged Walmart Intercom Lawsuit

9:00 AM, Dec 18, 2013   |    comments
Wal-Mart (image credit Daniel Aguilar/Getty)
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Jim Walsh, The (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post

CHERRY HILL, N.J. - Walmart can't be held responsible for a teenager who commandeered an intercom system and ordered black shoppers to leave one of its stores, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision terminated a lawsuit brought by Donnell Battie, a black shopper from Winslow who sought $1 million in damages from the giant retailer.

"The court has completely and finally dismissed the suit without finding any wrongdoing by Walmart," company spokesman Randy Hargrove said Tuesday.

"We're pleased that we can move forward," said Hargrove, who noted Walmart had upgraded its intercom systems in an effort to prevent future offenses.

An attorney for Battie, however, said a request would be made to reinstate the complaint.

The lawsuit asserted Battie was in the Black Horse Pike store in March 2010 when a youth announced over the public-address system: "Attention, Walmart customers: All black people must leave the store."

The lawsuit described the incident as an "imminent terrorist threat" that caused emotional distress and resulted in "substantial sickness" for Battie.

But U.S. District Judge Renee Marie Bumb said the lawsuit could not hold Walmart "vicariously liable for the offensive speech of one of its customers."

Among other points, the Camden judge cited a New Jersey court ruling that "declined to hold a defendant liable for allegedly discriminatory comments made by an unknown person that was neither an agent nor an employee."

A 16-year-old from Atlantic County was charged with harassment and bias intimidation in connection with that incident and a similar announcement in December 2009.

In an Oct. 15 ruling, Bumb rejected Battie's assertion that the earlier incident should have alerted Walmart to the potential for a repeat offense.

"One or two isolated, random events, no matter how egregious, are not enough to put a defendant on notice of the potential risk of harm," her ruling said.

And while Battie's suit pointed to multiple YouTube videos of intercom pranks at other Walmart stores, Bumb said it did not show Walmart "was aware of the events portrayed in the videos or that they were authentic."

The judge's ruling faulted the lawsuit, prepared by Cherry Hill attorney John Klamo, for "lack of clarity." It also said the lawyer did not respond to Walmart's final motion to dismiss the suit.

Klamo said Tuesday that another attorney who he would not identify is preparing to seek approval for the lawsuit's reinstatement.

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