Law360 (August 5, 2020, 10:12 PM EDT) -- A Kansas federal jury on Tuesday awarded $72,000 to a woman who injured her finger trying to separate a pair of jammed shopping carts at Walmart, finding the retail giant to be mostly to blame for the accident in the District of Kansas' first jury trial since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
The seven-person Kansas City jury deliberated for roughly three hours following the two-day trial before returning with a verdict in favor of plaintiff Sandy Skeels. The jury awarded Skeels $112,000 in noneconomic damages and $8,000 in medical expenses, but found that she was 40% to blame for her injury, and so under Kansas law her award is reduced by that amount.
Skeels alleged that Walmart Inc. knew the shopping carts at the Olathe, Kansas, store in question had a sticking problem but ignored it. She also alleged that getting her finger caught between the carts had necessitated two surgeries and left the finger with permanent damage.
The jury trial was the first in the Kansas federal courts since mid-March but was a smooth return to form, according to U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren. Judge Melgren told Law360 on Wednesday that it was "pretty remarkable" that trying a case with social distancing and masks went off without incident.
"I anticipated I might get more pushback either from people not wanting to come in at all or, on the flip side, I thought I might get pushback from people who were insistent about not wearing masks," he said. "Frankly, it went more smoothly than I expected it could."
Judge Melgren said that he had worked with the court's jury coordinator to prescreen potential jurors who were worried about COVID-19, and that the court ultimately brought in around 35 potential jurors for in-person voir dire in the courthouse's large ceremonial courtroom.
The judge said that although he has occasionally let attorneys take their masks off when addressing him during motion hearings in recent months, he decided to require everyone in the courtroom to keep their masks on during the entire trial out of an abundance of caution for the jurors.
Skeels' attorney Gerald Gray of G. Gray Law LLC told Law360 that he was "completely comfortable" with wearing a mask throughout the trial.
"My voice projects and I can be charismatic and all that, so I made sure that I spoke up," he said. "I always try to do the best I can and let my personality connect if it's going to happen. I don't think having a mask on interfered with my ability to connect with the jury or the judge."
Gray added that it had been over a year since his last jury trial, noting the mask may have helped his nerves.
Gray did express some concern about the inability to socially distance at counsel table, where he was sitting with his co-counsel, client and a paralegal. He added that Skeels, who is 61, wasn't concerned about COVID-19 and, in fact, was less worried about it than he was.
"Some folks, I guess, don't worry as much as others do," he said. "And [we] were able, thank God, to get a good result for her."
The trial may have been a return to action for the District of Kansas, but that wasn't the case for Walmart attorney James Jarrow of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC. He said he recently tried another premises liability case in Missouri state court.
Jarrow noted that the Missouri state court was requiring temperature checks for people entering the court, a step the federal court in Kansas didn't take.
He also said that he thought trying a case with masks on all the participants made things harder than usual.
"Obviously you can't see facial expressions of witnesses and jurors, so I think that makes it more difficult," Jarrow said. "I think it's better than having no trials at all, but it presents unique difficulties."
As for the verdict itself, Jarrow declined to comment except to note that Skeels had asked the jury to award $416,000 with full blame on Walmart, and instead was awarded $72,000.
Skeels is represented by Gerald Gray II of G. Gray Law LLC and Kenneth D. Kinney of Ralston Kinney LLC.
Walmart is represented by James R. Jarrow and Kehl D. Friesen of Baker Sterchi Cowden & Rice LLC.
The case is Sandy Skeels v. Walmart Inc. et al., case no. 2:19-cv-02064, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Kansas.
--Editing by Daniel King.
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