FORT PIERCE — A Port St. Lucie man was awarded nearly $1.3 million Wednesday by a circuit court jury in St. Lucie County in an unusual slip-and-fall case against Wal-Mart.
Carrying a bottle of water, Tom Papakalodoukas, 41, was shopping at the Wal-Mart at 1850 S.W. Gatlin in Port St. Lucie on May 15, 2011, when he stepped on a Gatorade sign that had fallen from a display. Papakalodoukas fell violently, tearing the biceps tendon in his dominant right arm.
Papakalodoukas, who has accrued more than $200,000 in medical bills, had three major surgeries in two years, including insertion of a cadaver Achilles tendon into his arm to assist in restoring strength.
Papakalodoukas has been left with a lifelong defect called a "popeye deformity," a malformed right bulging biceps tendon that creates abnormal bulges on his arm. He has not been able to return to work as a beverage distribution manager and suffers from depression partly triggered by anxieties about his health and future, said his attorney, Gloria Seidule of Stuart.
Store surveillance cameras caught the Gatorade sign falling and then, minutes later, Papakalodoukas slipping on it.
Wal-Mart employees discarded the display sign. Wal-Mart then claimed the display had been properly assembled and maintained, blaming Gatorade for providing plastic screws that could easily break to attach the sign to the display.
Wal-Mart also contended that it was not negligent because its employees did not have time to remove the fallen sign before the accident.
Seidule said she countered Wal-Mart's defense by presenting evidence from Gatorade that if the display had been assembled in accordance with Gatorade directions the sign could not have fallen. Gatorade said if the screws broke or came loose, it was Wal-Mart's duty to maintain the sign.
After four hours of deliberation, the all-female jury found Wal-Mart 90 percent at fault and awarded Papakalodoukas $1,287,144.
"The jury assessed the existing and future medical expenses and lost wages when determining the monetary value of the case," Seidule said.
Papakalodoukas said he never considered hiring a big law firm to represent him in his case against the world's largest corporation.
"I hired Ms. Seidule from a personal reference," he said.
Seidule, who has practiced law for 26 years, most of that time as a sole practitioner in Stuart, said she handles many cases against big companies and took on Wal-Mart without trepidation. She said she had sued Wal-Mart for other clients, but those cases were settled before trial.