Mother sues Wal-Mart after employee molested her 10-year-old daughter.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — What should have been a fun night of shopping turned into an unforgettable nightmare for a 10-year-old South Carolinian after she was molested in the electronics aisle of Wal-Mart by a registered sex offender, who also happened to be a store employee.

Now, after almost six years, the civil case filed against the retail giant is finally going to trial. Opening statements are expected Tuesday.

Maria Hollins, the victim’s mother, is suing Wal-Mart for gross negligence for an unspecified amount of damages. Hollins claims the retailer was negligent in not performing employee background checks and should have kept three-time convicted sex offender Bobby Devon Randall away from her daughter.

On Sept. 25, 2000, Maria Hollins and her two daughters entered a Richland County Wal-Mart. The 10-year-old victim wandered into the electronics aisle where Randall was working while her mom and sister went to another area in the store.

On a security surveillance tape, Randall is seen approaching and briefly touching the girl. He then steps away and appears to be touching himself in the groin. When another shopper approaches, Randall ceases and darts out of the area. Seconds later, Randall returns to the other side of the aisle and appears to touch himself in front of the girl for a second time.

After her daughter told her what happened, Hollins returned to the superstore the next day to speak to a manager and was offered a $25 gift certificate as a token of concern, according to the complaint filed in Richland County.

Two days after the incident, a Wal-Mart supervisor, Bradley Lumpkin, viewed the tape and provided it to police as evidence. Consequently, Randall was called to the store and fired, according to a signed statement from Lumpkin.

According to the plaintiff’s attorney David Massey, Randall masturbated in front of the girl, who has suffered greatly because of her young age and to the lewd and aberrant nature of the act.

The registered sex offender later pleaded guilty to indecent exposure and performing a lewd act on a minor. The 46-year-old died a few months later while serving a 10-year sentence. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound offender collapsed after a prison basketball game and died of a heart attack in the hospital.

The victim, who is referred to in court records as Jane Doe, is expected to testify via videotaped deposition taken by Wal-Mart. Although the 10th grader is expected to appear in court during her mother’s testimony, she will not take the stand, Massey said.

A known sex offender?

A key issue in the case involves a three-month leave of absence that Randall supposedly took in 1999. Massey alleges that the former Wal-Mart employee took leave after he was arrested outside another South Carolina Wal-Mart for exposing himself to two girls.

If true, the incident could undermine Wal-Mart’s claim that the retailer did not know Randall was a sex offender and that he lied on his employment application. Probation records show that Randall informed a probation officer that he was seeking counseling for his sexual deviance through Wal-Mart.

The case has affected more than just this South Carolina town, according to Massey. Almost four years after the incident, Wal-Mart began performing criminal background checks on all potential employees — a practice that the company formerly prohibited, according to Massey.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer announced the change in August 2004 — the same day a South Carolina judge ruled the retailer must provide a list of employees for the last five years so it could be cross-referenced against South Carolina’s sex offender records. The matching names and numbers have not been released by the court.

According to the plaintiff’s attorney, there are similar cases involving Wal-Mart employees in as many as six states — Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Texas, Pennsylvania and Florida. Massey is representing the plaintiffs in a similar incident in which a 12-year-old claims she was fondled at an Orangeburg, S.C., store.

Wal-Mart, which plans to open a new store in Columbia once it receives rezoning approval, has refused to settle the case, Massey said.

The move is surprising, given the publicity fight Wal-Mart is mounting to improve its battered image as an exploitive money-maker that has little regard for its employees and the environment. The company has been criticized for skimping on employee health care and killing off mom-and-pop competitors that give American towns their individuality.

Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Attorney Steve Morrison is leading the defense for the corporation with revenues topping $300 billion.

The case being tried before Judge Ernest Kinard in Richland County Circuit Court is expected to last two weeks and will be streamed live on Court TV Extra.

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