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Mother sues Walmart after child's death in parking lot

Essie McKenzie alleges that the retail chain's policy of letting people camp in its parking lots unsupervised led to a fire that killed her 6-year-old daughter.

FRIDLEY, Minn. — A Coon Rapids woman is suing Walmart over a 2019 fire in the parking lot of the company's Fridley store that took the life of her 6-year-old daughter. 

Essie McKenzie alleges that Walmart's policy to allow RVs and other vehicles camp in their store parking lots led a California couple to stay overnight in August of 2019, and eventually use a hotplate that started McKenzie's van on fire with her two children sleeping inside. The lawsuit alleges wrongful death, and says by allowing people to camp with no supervision, permit requirements or sanitation, Walmart has maintained dangerous conditions on store grounds. 

"These unregulated, unlicensed, and unmonitored campgrounds pose a threat of illness, injury, noise, and crime to a considerable number of members of the public," the court documents read. 

The suit seeks damages in excess of $75,000.

First responders were called to the Walmart Superstore at 8450 University Avenue in Fridley around 7:15 a.m. the morning of Aug. 6, on reports that a van had caught fire and jumped to multiple vehicles parked nearby. One of those vehicles belonged to Essie McKenzie and inside were her children, who were napping while she shopped for groceries. McKenzie said the children were tired after being awakened quite early that morning so she could take relatives to the airport. 

McKenzie's 6-year-old daughter Ty-rah sustained injuries that would prove fatal, and her eldest daughter Taraji, who was nine at the time of the incident, suffered severe injuries that the lawsuit claims will leave her physically and emotionally scarred for life. 

Investigators discovered that the origin of the fire was a hot plate being used by Robert Lino Hipolito, who was camping in the Walmart parking lot with his wife in their minivan. The 72-year-old Hipolito was charged with second degree manslaughter, but eventually pled guilty to two felony counts of negligent fire. He was sentenced to 120 days in jail and three years probation. 

“She (her daughter Taraji White) watched her six-year-old sister (Ty'rah) lose everything in the palm of her hand,” said McKenzie at the time of the sentencing. Taraji White survived the fire but was left with severe burns and lung damage.

“I wished that this never happened, and I wish I could do something to fix it, but I can do nothing,” Hipolito told the court.

The lawsuit says Walmart allows overnight camping in its parking lots with the expectation those campers will then purchase goods from the store. It alleges Walmart failed to monitor the activities of overnight campers, specifically the Hipolitos, though having the capability to do so.

While McKenzie's attorney did not respond to inquiries Wednesday, Walmart sent a statement saying, "Our sympathies remain with the friends and family impacted by this tragic event three years ago. We plan to defend the company and will respond in Court to the Complaint as appropriate." 

In 2020, a Hennepin County judge approved a separate, $130,000 settlement in a civil case filed on behalf of McKenzie's surviving daughter against the California man.

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