Customers are just queuing up to take Wal-Mart to court

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The Independent Online

Wal-Mart, the US supermarket retailing titan that owns Britain's Asda and trails only ExxonMobil in global annual revenues, has now emerged as the most sued company in America.

It is no mean feat. US society is the most litigious in the world, and the private sector has little hesitation in dragging almost any issue before the courts. But Wal-Mart seems to be a particular target for lawsuits. Last year, it was sued once every two hours – a total of 4,851 cases – and the company's lawyers list about 9,400 cases still on the go. Only the US government is sued more times a year: the Justice Department estimates it faced 7,500 private cases in 2000.

But the Bentonville-based group has managed to generate a sub-set of dozens of lawyers across the US that now specialise in taking it to court, using the internet to share case strategies.

Much of the problem comes from Wal-Mart's sprawling nature. Since its foundation 39 years ago, it has expanded enormously, and the stores receive over 100 million visitors each week.

Some sue after falling on slippery floors or icy car parks. Employees have sued on the grounds of discrimination. The family of an Alabama woman shot by her husband sued because he had illegally bought the gun at a Wal-Mart store.

But Wal-Mart plays its own part in this litigious culture. Unlike many huge companies that tend to opt for out-of-court settlements to keep publicity and costs low, Wal-Mart insists on fighting everything landing on its doorstep.

Even when it would be cheaper for the company to settle, Wal-Mart has stuck to its policy of aggressively battling each case in the courts. And, although the new figures suggest otherwise, the company believes that eventually the numbers of lawsuits will stabilise, as individuals shy away from the cost of fighting the retailer.

While he sees the strategy as risky, Tom Harrison, publisher of Lawyers Weekly USA, said: "The rewards are potentially great. Many eyes in the legal profession are watching Wal-Mart, and not just to see what's on sale."

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