Last June, as has been widely reported, one of Walmart’s tractor-trailers traveling on the New Jersey Turnpike plowed into a limousine in which one person was killed and actor Tracy Morgan and others were badly injured. Morgan suffered broken ribs and a broken leg. Those facts do not appear to be in dispute.
At the time, Walmart issued a statement saying it would cooperate with the accident investigation and would take “full responsibility” if its driver, Kevin Roper, were found to be at fault. This was appropriate.
The victims, notably Morgan, filed suit for damages against Walmart. Among their allegations are that the Walmart driver was awake for more than 24 hours. But today, Walmart counter-sued by saying any injuries incurred were the fault of Morgan and the other passengers for failing to wear their seat belts.
So much for taking responsibility.
Walmart is clearly trying to mitigate the amount of damages it will have to pay, but claiming publicly that the victims are to blame for their injuries creates a crisis of public perception for the retail giant. Plus, it has the greasy paw prints of lawyers all over it.
In my career, I have from time to time been asked to advise clients in similar crisis situations, and what it comes down to is what is to be gained by blaming the victims, especially when one of the victims is a well-known public figure? Wamart’s strategy might have worked if the victims were no-name Joe six-pack and company and court filings stood little chance of being aired publicly. As I have said before, in the pitched battle between perception and reality, perception always wins.
And Walmart has now created the perception that it cares more about money than it does about doing the right thing. Maybe they do, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they are merely following the advice of some high-priced attorney. In my most recent book, Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message, in a chapter on dealing with lawyers in a crisis, I cover a number of situations where I argue it is sometimes best to ignore the lawyers’ advice just to avoid costly pyrrhic victories. This is one such time.
Walmart already knows this accident will cost them money, and they can afford it. But trying to reduce the monetary damages this way simply makes them look greedy.
Whatever fallout comes their way, this crisis is one of their own making.