The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

September 15, 2012

Tornado victim’s family names Joplin Wal-Mart in wrongful-death suit

JOPLIN, Mo. — The family of a man killed inside the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Range Line Road during the May 22, 2011, tornado has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Arkansas corporation and the store’s manager.

Janice Kirk and Jodelle Kirk, both of Joplin, are listed as plaintiffs in a lawsuit that was filed July 31 in Jasper County Circuit Court and transferred Friday to the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri. They are the wife and daughter, respectively, of Stanley Kirk, 62, an aircraft engine technician who died as a result of injuries suffered during the EF-5 tornado that led to the deaths of 161 people.

The lawsuit names as defendants Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which operates Wal-Mart Supercenter Store No. 59, 1501 S. Range Line Road in Joplin, as well as the Joplin store’s manager, Andy Martin.

Janice Kirk and Jodelle Kirk did not respond to a message from the Globe seeking comment Saturday afternoon. Their Joplin-based attorneys, Ed Hershewe and Ashley Norman, also could not be reached for comment.

In response to a Globe request, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. issued a one-paragraph statement Saturday through Randy Hargrove, the company’s director of national media relations: “We extend our deepest sympathy to Mr. Kirk’s family. This was a horrible tragedy for Joplin. Walmart is committed to this community, and we have worked hard to help rebuild after this tragic event. We have protocols in place for severe weather, and the safety plan our associates implemented helped save lives. We stand behind our associates and how they handled this natural disaster.”

The Globe asked Wal-Mart for details about its emergency plans in the event of a tornado, but Hargrove said he could not comment beyond the statement.

According to the lawsuit, Kirk called his wife at about 5 p.m. on May 22, 2011, to tell her he was going to the Wal-Mart store for some golf equipment. Tornado sirens sounded in Joplin about 17 minutes later.

The lawsuit alleges that “sometime after the conversation with his wife, but before approximately 5:24 p.m., (Kirk) attempted to leave the store to return home. ... (Kirk) was forced to stay in the store and (was) directed to an unsafe/improper location.”

The plaintiffs allege that the defendants failed to allow Kirk to leave the store by locking the store’s doors, which they argue also prevented access into the store for emergency personnel. According to the court records, Kirk lived only three miles away, “or a seven-minute drive,” in an area that was not hit by the tornado, but was forced to stay in the store.

The lawsuit further argues that both the Wal-Mart corporation and the store manager were negligent that night, alleging that the defendants knew or should have known that:

• The store was “located in an area that was at a high risk of tornadoes and violent wind.”

• The store was “not constructed properly, considering this increased risk of violent storms and tornadoes.”

• There was “not a proper emergency plan in place at the store, including a lack of signage and identified safe areas/tornado refuge areas.”

• Clients directed to “unsafe areas within the store” were at risk for serious injury or death during violent storms.

• There was a risk of violent storms when the tornado sirens sounded.

“(The) defendant negligently caused (Kirk) to be exposed to the dangerous storm, debris and water,” the lawsuit alleges. “Defendant’s actions and deliberate decisions negligently caused (Kirk) to receive severe injuries resulting in his death. Each negligent act by defendant, and those by and through its employees, including defendant Martin, was a direct and proximate cause of the death of (Kirk).”

In an affidavit filed Friday in Jasper County Circuit Court, Martin acknowledges he was employed as the Wal-Mart store manager on May 22, but he said he was not at work that night, having been on vacation during the preceding week.

Janice Kirk and Jodelle Kirk are seeking an unspecified amount in damages; their lawsuit cites pain and suffering, the loss of Kirk’s income, and funeral and medical expenses.

Multiple fatalities

According to Globe records, Stanley Kirk was one of at least three people who died in the May 22, 2011, tornado while inside the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Range Line Road.

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