Essie McKenzie walked out of a Fridley Walmart one morning three years ago to find her car on fire with her two young daughters still inside.
The fire had spread from a stove in a nearby motorhome. He killed his youngest child, 6-year-old Ty’rah White, and severely disfigured his then 9-year-old surviving daughter, Taraji White, leaving the family in shock to this day.
McKenzie is now suing Walmart over its policy that invites RV campers to stay overnight in the mega retail chain’s store parking lots, alleging negligence and wrongful death due to lack of oversight appropriate.
“For me, it’s more about accountability,” the Coon Rapids wife said. “I feel like I took full responsibility because my child isn’t even here. I have a child that I can’t see every day. I took full responsibility for that, but other than that, I feel like everyone needs to step up and take responsibility on their part.”
McKenzie filed a federal civil lawsuit against the Arkansas-based Walmart in June, with her underage daughters also listed as plaintiffs.
The five-count suit, seeking more than $75,000 in damages, outlines allegations of negligence, nuisance and wrongful death. At the heart of the combination is Walmart’s invitation to campers to stay overnight in its parking lots. McKenzie alleges that Walmart is endangering nearby shoppers and residents by not actively monitoring its overnight guests, saying it has created an “unregulated campground.”
McKenzie is represented by William Starr, an attorney for Hopkins. Walmart, meanwhile, intends to defend itself against the lawsuit.
“Our condolences go out to the friends and family affected by this tragic event three years ago,” Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said. “We plan to defend the company and will respond to the complaint in court if necessary.”
Walmart has a well-established policy of inviting campers to stay put, and several websites direct travelers to stores where overnight camping is allowed.
“While we don’t provide electrical or lodging services typically needed by RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers,” the company says on its website.
“Therefore, we allow the parking of motorhomes in the car parks of our stores within the limits of our possibilities. Permission to park is extended by the managers of individual stores, depending on the availability of parking spaces and local laws.”
McKenzie and her two daughters stopped by the Fridley store on the morning of August 6, 2019, after dropping off her mother and another relative for an early morning flight. She decided to let the two girls continue to sleep in her car while she went home to do her shopping.
Roberto Lino Hipolito, 74, and his wife were staying in their motorhome on the grounds. After he finished cooking breakfast on a butane camping stove, he returned the stove to his vehicle without waiting for it to cool down. Hipolito placed the bedding on the stove before parking closer to the front of the lot next to McKenzie’s vehicle.
Hipolito’s vehicle caught fire while inside the store, quickly spreading to cars parked nearby. McKenzie left the store to find firefighters responding to her car engulfed in flames as her daughters remained trapped inside. Rescuers had to hold her back as she tried to run towards her children.
Ty’rah was in cardiac arrest but was revived at the scene after being taken out of the vehicle. However, she died in hospital a day later from smoke inhalation and burns that covered almost 60% of her body. McKenzie’s other daughter suffered permanent injuries.
His lawsuit points out that Walmart had surveillance cameras that could observe the activities of those staying at its lot and should have done more.
“Walmart failed to monitor the activities of overnight campers, particularly the Hipolitos, despite having the ability to do so,” according to the lawsuit.
Hipolito was charged with second-degree manslaughter, but the charge was dismissed when he pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent arson. Those counts were reduced to misdemeanors after he served 48 days in jail. Hipolito also received three years of probation.
A 2020 Hennepin County judge approved a $130,000 settlement in a civil case filed on behalf of McKenzie’s surviving daughter against Hipolito.
In a recent interview, McKenzie described lingering trauma for her and Taraji, now 12, who struggles socially at school with visible scars from her injuries. The experience made her daughter “essentially a loner” in school, McKenzie said. She said Taraji also had to see a lung specialist every month while taking several medications.
“Our lives have completely changed overall — more down than up, you know,” McKenzie said.
“People look down on your situation and everyone thinks they could have done better than what I did. Looking back, what keeps me going is knowing what kind of mother I was with. my children.”
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