Crime & Courts

Exclusive: Wal-Mart pays to settle S.C. suit

A family's long legal battle against the nation's biggest retailer that helped spark stricter hiring practices companywide to protect child customers from employees with criminal histories has ended with a confidential settlement.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. agreed last week to pay a girl an undisclosed sum after a worker who was a registered sex offender fondled her in July 2004 while she shopped with her little sister and a family friend in an Orangeburg store, according to court records.

Within weeks of that incident and similar ones, Wal-Mart began conducting criminal background checks on new hires at its 3,500 stores, including Sam's Club.

A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., Daphne Moore, would not discuss the Dec. 16 settlement Wednesday.

"I can just tell you the matter is resolved," Moore said, declining to discuss the case or how the company has changed its employment practices.

The girl's parents said Wednesday they are glad Wal-Mart changed its practices. But they worry the retailer will revert to cheaper hiring methods.

"We had to fight them, fight them, fight them," Tarsha Perry said from the family's Jacksonville, Fla., home. "It was like dealing with a juvenile delinquent who kept doing things wrong."

That's why the Perrys, who agreed to be named in this article, want South Carolina to enact a law requiring employers to pay for background checks.

That's unlikely, certainly not in the upcoming legislative session, said Laura Hudson, a veteran S.C. lobbyist for crime victims.

The Perry's two daughters had been spending summers in Orangeburg with their grandmother for years until the assault, Tarsha Perry said.

The fallout of Wal-Mart's former practices continues to affect the Perry's now-17-year-old daughter, an accomplished high school senior.

She has yet to go out on a date with a boy by herself. She also is less outwardly affectionate toward her father, a physician, who used to hug her, tickle her and chase her and her younger sister around playing monster games.

"Now he has to ask for a kiss," Tarsha Perry said. "Anyone gets too close to her, she still takes a few steps back.

"It stole her childhood," she said of the aftereffects of the July 3, 2004, incident that was captured on the store's security video. The Perrys sued later that year.

Their eldest daughter's middle school years were difficult as she withdrew from students, missed school and got her first F, Tarsha Perry said.

In high school, the girl got into basketball, her grades returned to As and Bs and she became fluent in Spanish, her mother said. The teenager has grown stronger, more independent and wants to follow her father into medicine. Her younger sister wants to be a lawyer.

"They've got this mentality that they want to be in charge of things," the 43-year-old mother said. "They want to call the shots."

The younger daughter, now in eighth grade, saw the man fondle her sister's buttocks and was shaken by the experience, Tarsha Perry said.

The State newspaper generally does not identify people who are sexually assaulted.

The Perry's attorney, David Massey of Columbia, called the lawsuit and the settlement "a bloody fight the whole way. I'm glad it's resolved."

"Wal-Mart is now doing the right thing," Massey said.

The settlement bars him or the family from disclosing the amount Wal-Mart is paying the family. But Massey said he refused to sign an agreement to be muzzled about the facts.

Massey also represents a Columbia girl who was fondled four years earlier at a Forest Acres store. Wal-Mart won that case at trial. An appeal is before the state Supreme Court.

The Perry lawsuit contends Wal-Mart:

- Knew its employees were increasingly assaulting children in its stores because a subsidiary that handles claims reported the trend

- Knew its written policy against conducting background checks on most new hires was resulting in hiring sex offenders

- Conducted a pilot program to screen the criminal histories of applicants and found nearly 6 percent had been convicted

The attorney said the size of the settlement "is a message to all employers" who do not check for criminal histories.

"It does not do much for shareholders' bottom line," he said. "But it sure does a lot for our children."

The girl's father, physician Nathan Perry, 45, said he's convinced Wal-Mart did not conduct background checks in order to save on the expense and to hire low-wage workers.

"There's no doubt in my mind that they said: 'Hey, this is going to cost us a lot of money and we can get those guys for cheaper. Where else are they going to go?'" the general practitioner said.

He cited a list of allegations that have plagued Wal-Mart, including a federal raid in 2003 of contract cleaning crews suspected of being illegal immigrants and a 2004 class-action sex discrimination suit.

"Hopefully, we'll hear nothing further bad about Wal-Mart," Nathan Perry said. "Hopefully, they'll go down the straight and narrow."

Still, the Perrys say they no longer shop at Wal-Mart.

Even now, they see in their own household the impact of Wal-Mart's actions.

"I find myself staring at them," Tarsha Perry said of her daughters, "and remembering what happened and the emotional toll it took on them.

"It's an irreparable hurt."