Is Walmart addicted to public outrage?

On June 7, a Walmart (WMT) truck caused a six car pile-up on the New Jersey Turnpike. Tracy Morgan, a controversial but popular comedian, was hospitalized after sustaining serious injuries in the accident, as were two other men. A fourth man, James McNair, was killed. Walmart issued the following statement: “The facts are continuing to unfold. If it’s determined that our truck caused the accident, Walmart will take full responsibility… We can’t change what happened, but we will do what’s right for the family of the victim and the survivors in the days and weeks ahead.”

It soon came to light that the driver of the truck, Kevin Roper, was driving 20 miles per hour over the speed limit and had been at the wheel for nearly 14 hours. Morgan, who is still recovering from his injuries, sued Walmart.

On Monday, Walmart filed an answer to the complaint, which is online here. Perhaps it isn't particularly surprising that Walmart would backpedal a little bit on the “full responsibility” thing, or even that the company would hide behind legalese and obfuscation, but if you can make it past all the paragraphs that say, “Walmart lacks knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief…” or “Walmart is unable to admit or deny the allegation…” you come to a real gem.

You'll find this in section 25: “Upon information and belief, plaintiffs' injuries, if any, were caused, in whole or in part, by plaintiffs' failure to properly wear an appropriate available seatbelt restraint device.” That's right, Walmart attempted to shift the blame for the injuries (if any) to the injured parties by pointing out that they weren't wearing seatbelts. I'm not anti-seatbelt, but Morgan and his friends were riding in a limo-buss at the time of the accident. In the actual world, there is no expectation that anyone ever wears seatbelts on a limo-buss.

Perhaps I make an unnecessary point, but the essential element in the accident that injured Tracy Morgan was the truck that hit him.

Americans – no, scratch that – people don’t like it when you hurt people and then blame the people you hurt. It strikes at our innate sense of justice. It is, in a word, offensive. Most companies would have known better than to do this, regardless of who the victim was, and even Walmart should have known better than to blame their victim in this case, when the victim was a popular celebrity.

It's enough to raise the question, “Is Walmart doing this on purpose?”

Just weeks ago Walmart swapped out its corporate uniform for a dress code, forcing its employees to buy new clothes – clothes the chain was happy to sell them – despite many such workers being unable to afford new clothes without relying on public assistance. While a quick grab at $78 million of taxpayer money seems fully in character for the chain, consider the timing. Walmart did this at a time when the low wages it pays its employees has become a serious political issue due to the amount of money the government is now spending to support Walmart's workforce. Walmart seems to respond to scrutiny, criticism, public outrage, etc., by flagrantly demonstrating that it is even worse than anyone suspected.

One could dismiss this sort of behavior as the petulant dung-flinging of narcissistic executives, and perhaps it is, but might there actually be sound strategy behind it? No, calling it “sound” is going too far. But it does make sense if you look at things from Walmart's perspective. Walmart is always being criticized by someone, for something. Perhaps Walmart's executives prefer to pick their own fights, stay on the offensive, and show up for work each day knowing exactly what they are going to be attacked for.

And perhaps it's working. After all, we can hardly stop to consider how the company has contributed to American wage stagnation when we have already used up all our outrage on the company's latest, pointless, thumb-in-your-eye PR gaff. 

Julian Close has been a business writer since the first day of the twenty-first century, having written for PRA International and the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping. He graduated from Davidson College in 1993 and received a Master of Arts in Teaching from Mary Baldwin College in 2011. He became a stockbroker in 1993, but now works for Fresh Brewed Media and uses his powers only for good. You can see closing trades for all Julian's long and short positions and track his long term performance via twitter: @JulianClose_MIC.

Julian Close

Julian Close

Julian Close became a stockbroker in 1995. In his 20 years of market experience, he has seen all market conditions and written about every aspect of investing. Julian has also written extensively on corporate best practices and even written reports for the United Nations. He graduated from Davidson College in 1993 and received a Master of Arts in Teaching from Mary Baldwin College in 2011. You can see closing trades for all Julian's long and short positions and track his long term performance via twitter: @JulianClose_MIC.

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