Around 6 a.m. on August 6, 2019, Essie McKenzie pulled into the Walmart Supercenter in Fridley, Minnesota, after having dropped off her mother at the airport. Inside her minivan were her two daughters, ages 6 and 9. McKenzie claimed that both girls were tired from their early start, so rather than take them into the store with her, she permitted them to sleep in the van. Upon returning to the parking lot approximately one hour later, she found her van ablaze.
According to the Miami Herald, McKenzie moved toward the fire, but was held back by first responders. She is said to have looked on as firefighters worked ardently to free her daughters from the inferno.
The 6-year-old, Ty'rah White, suffered cardiac arrest. Although revived in the parking lot, she later died at HCMC hospital. Her older sister Taraji did, however, survive, though with severe burns, which reportedly resulted in permanent disfigurement.
McKenzie told WCCO-TV shortly after the incident: "My baby fought a good fight. She was so strong through the whole process."
The fire reportedly first spread to McKenzie's vehicle from a California couple's Dodge Caravan, parked adjacent. The couple had used a portable stove to cook breakfast earlier that morning, which the husband stowed away among pillows and blankets while still hot.
Robert Hipolito, the 72-year-old driver of the Caravan and operator of the stove, was first charged with second-degree manslaughter, but was ultimately convicted on two felony counts of negligent fire. He served four months in prison.
McKenzie now seeks restitution from Walmart, suggesting that Hipolito wasn't entirely culpable.
On June 6, McKenzie's attorney filed a civil lawsuit demanding a minimum of $75,000 in relief. It accuses the retailer of negligence and wrongful death due to a lack of oversight.
The lawsuit also alleges that Walmart's policy of permitting free overnight parking, including to camper vans, is to blame, since there is no corresponding safety monitoring to ensure the safety of other customers. "Walmart encouraged and permitted a dangerous condition on its property. ... Unmonitored overnight guests pose a foreseeable heightened risk to other Walmart shoppers."
While proponents of Walmart have voiced their "sympathies ... with the friends and family impacted by this tragic event," Randy Hargrove, Walmart's senior director of national media relations, indicated that the company plans to defend itself and "will respond in Court to the Complaint as appropriate."
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