Sisters asleep in minivan burned alive in parking lot fire. Now mom is suing Walmart

·3 min read
Amy Sancetta/AP

A Minnesota mother is suing Walmart after a fire in a store parking lot burned her daughters alive, killing one and leaving the other “permanently disfigured,” according to a lawsuit.

Essie McKenzie’s daughters were sleeping soundly in the back of her minivan when she pulled up to the Walmart Supercenter in Fridley, Minnesota, on Aug. 6, 2019.

The girls, ages 6 and 9, were tired after being woken early to go to the airport, where McKenzie dropped off her mother, she would later tell investigators, according to court documents. She decided to let them sleep while she took care of some shopping, believing they would be safe.

It was around 6 a.m.

When she came back outside minutes later, the minivan was in flames, documents say.

She ran toward the fire but first responders held her back. She watched and waited while firefighters eventually pulled the girls from the van.

The flames had gotten to them.

The younger of the two was in cardiac arrest, revived in the parking lot and taken to a hospital, where she later died. Her big sister survived, severely burned and “permanently disfigured,” documents say.

In the lawsuit against Walmart, filed June 6, McKenzie’s attorneys blame the company for its “well-known” policy of allowing people to stay in store parking lots overnight and essentially camp out — but not monitoring those guests to help ensure the safety of other customers.

“Walmart encouraged and permitted a dangerous condition on its property,” the lawsuit says. “(Walmart) escalated that danger by failing to provide staff to oversee the appropriate use of its parking lot as a campground.”

In a statement to McClatchy News, Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove said “our sympathies remain with the friends and family impacted by this tragic even three years ago,” adding that the retail corporation “plan(s) to defend the company and will respond in Court to the Complaint as appropriate.

The fire started with a camping stove, investigators say.

A California man was traveling with his wife in their 2005 Dodge Caravan, living out of it as they drove across the country, according to documents. They decided to stop at the Walmart in Fridley and camp in the parking lot.

The morning of the fire, the man used a camping stove to make breakfast, documents say. Once finished, he put it into the back of their vehicle “without waiting for it to cool,” then drove from the back of the lot into a parking space closer to the store entrance — a parking space right next to McKenzie’s minivan.

The man went into the store and the camping stove ignited a fire inside his vehicle, documents say. His wife tried to put out the flames but was unsuccessful. Their vehicle was engulfed and the blaze spread to McKenzie’s van.

The man, who pleaded guilty to two counts of “negligent fire causing great bodily harm,” was sentenced in 2020 to 120 days in jail and three years probation, outlets reported.

“Unmonitored overnight guests pose a foreseeable heightened risk to other Walmart shoppers and nearby residents,” the lawsuit says.

Walmart also fails to inform guests and the public at large about “the potentially dangerous condition” created by the free camping policy and lack of oversight, according to the lawsuit.

McKenzie’s attorneys are seeking a minimum of $75,000 in relief.

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