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Wal-Mart Death Probe: Company Paying $2 Million To Avoid Charges

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MINEOLA, N.Y. — Wal-Mart agreed Wednesday to pay nearly $2 million and improve safety at its 92 New York stores as part of a deal with prosecutors that avoids criminal charges in the trampling death of a temporary worker last year.

Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said that if she had brought criminal charges against the retailer in the worker's death, the company would have been subject to only a $10,000 fine if convicted. Rice declined to say what charges were considered against Wal-Mart, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

Instead, she said, the company has agreed to implement an improved crowd-management plan for post-Thanksgiving Day sales, set up a $400,000 victims' compensation and remuneration fund, and give $1.5 million to Nassau County social services programs and nonprofit groups.

The agreement included no admission of guilt by Wal-Mart.

"Rather than bringing the world's largest retailer to court and imposing a small fine against them, I felt it was important to require significant safety changes that will affect the whole state," Rice said. "Our goal is for the protocols that are set up to be the gold standard for crowd management in this industry."

Details of Wal-Mart's crowd-management plan for its New York stores have yet to be worked out. The retailer will work with two independent safety experts on the plan, and the experts will review it over the next three years. Wal-Mart will be responsible for complying with the recommendations. The prosecutor said her office will oversee compliance.

Wal-Mart said it would focus on three areas: customer approach and entry into a store, customer flow through the store and around promotional merchandise and flow through checkout areas.

It plans to provide customers with maps of where high-interest sale items are located and place those products at appropriate distances within the store to avoid crowding. Employees will be asked to help keep areas around checkout counters clear and so-called "quick response teams" will be deployed to handle unexpected customer issues.

"The crowd management plan we are announcing today was developed by a team of experts whose experience includes NFL Super Bowls, Olympic games, concerts and national political conventions," Wal-Mart vice president Hank Mullany said.

The company said it will consider expanding the safety plan to all of its stores.

Rice's office began a criminal investigation shortly after last November's customer stampede.

Jdimytai (Jimmy-tree) Damour, a temporary employee, had been on the job for about a week and had no training in security or crowd control when a crowd estimated at 2,000 broke down the Valley Stream store's doors, trapping him in a vestibule.

Built like an NFL linebacker at 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, the 34-year-old Queens man died of asphyxiation. Eleven others, including a pregnant woman, were injured.

Edward H. Gersowitz, an attorney representing Damour's family in a civil lawsuit, blasted the settlement and said the family was never consulted before the deal was announced, a charge the prosecutor's office denies.

Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Rice, said prosecutors repeatedly tried to speak with the Damour family "and they refused to speak to us."

Gersowitz also called for a special prosecutor.

"The ability of Wal-Mart to, in effect, buy off this criminal investigation demonstrates the epitome of corporate arrogance that has become all too familiar in this day and age, and shows how Wal-Mart has nothing but contempt for the victims of such corporate malfeasance," he said in a statement.

Any victims who accept payment from the Wal-Mart compensation fund will be required to waive their right to a separate civil suit against Wal-Mart, Rice said. Also, she said, Wal-Mart has agreed to advertise the compensation fund in the daily and weekly newspapers that cover Valley Stream and its surrounding neighborhoods.

"Facilitating the compensation is one of the main goals of this settlement," she said.

"We are hoping that this safety plan becomes the nationally recognized model for crowd management among all retailers and becomes an industrywide best practice," she said.

The community grant money includes $1.2 million for Nassau County's Youth Board, which helps nonprofit agencies provide career development, employment training and other opportunities. The retailer also will donate $300,000 to the United Way of Long Island's Youth Build Program in Nassau County. The deal also calls for Wal-Mart to hire 50 high school students annually to work in its five stores in the county.

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