An African American shopper who says he suffers emotional distress and mental afflictions caused by a racist intercom announcement he heard two years ago at a Wal-Mart store in Washington Township, Gloucester County, is suing the retail giant for $1 million.
Donnell Battie, 35, of Winslow Township, was in the crowded store on Route 42 the evening of March 14, 2010, when a male voice said over the loudspeaker: "Attention Wal-Mart customers, all black people must leave the store."
"He thought the manager was directing the hateful announcement at him because there weren't too many African Americans in the store, and he didn't know what to do," said Battie's lawyer, John A. Klamo, who has an office in Cherry Hill. "He had been discriminated against before and was receiving medical care for various conditions, and this exacerbated it."
Police subsequently arrested a 16-year-old Atlantic County boy who used the intercom without store authorization. The teenager, who was not identified because he was a minor, was charged with harassment and bias intimidation. He was sentenced to probation and had to write a letter of apology to Battie, Klamo said.
About 10 African American customers who were in the Wal-Mart filed complaints with police immediately after the event. Some said the incident had triggered memories of segregation. Following the announcement, a hush fell over the Wal-Mart, according to witnesses, and at least five minutes elapsed before store management used the loudspeaker to tell people to disregard the message.
Klamo said he knew of no other lawsuit related to the announcement.
Battie has suffered "severe and disabling emotional and psychological harm, resulting in depression, anxiety, anger, loss of sleep, loss of appetite, paranoia," and other conditions, according to the lawsuit, filed this month in U.S. District Court in Camden.
Wal-Mart was negligent for not securing its intercom system, according to the suit. The teenager was found to have made a similar racist comment over the intercom system in December 2009.
Greg Rossiter, spokesman for Wal-Mart, said the episode led the Arkansas-based chain to examine intercom systems in its stores across the country. Many were made more secure, he said..
At the time, YouTube featured amateur videos showing intercom pranks played by teenagers at Wal-Marts and other stores.
"We were appalled by this incident and are amazed that anyone could be so backward and mean-spirited in this day and age. We are sorry it happened and apologized at the time to any of our customers and associates who heard it. We updated our intercom system in this store to prevent this from happening in the future," Rossiter said.
Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog on philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.