Essie McKenzie walked out of a Fridley Walmart one morning three years ago to find her car ablaze with her two young daughters still inside.
The fire had spread from a cook stove in a recreational camper nearby. It killed her youngest child, Ty'rah White, 6, and badly disfigured her then-9-year-old surviving daughter, Taraji White — leaving the family reeling to this day.
McKenzie is now suing Walmart related to its policy that welcomes RV campers to stay overnight in the mega retail chain's store parking lots, alleging negligence and wrongful death as a result of a lack of proper oversight.
"For me, it's more about accountability," the Coon Rapids woman said. "I feel like I took full accountability because my child is not even here. I have a child that I can't see every day. I took full accountability for that, but besides that, I feel like everybody else needs to step up and take accountability for their part."
McKenzie sued the Arkansas-based Walmart in U.S. District Court in June, with her minor daughters also listed as plaintiffs.
The five-count complaint, seeking more than $75,000 in damages, outlines allegations including negligence, nuisance and wrongful death. At the heart of the suit is Walmart's invitation for campers to stay overnight in its parking lots. McKenzie alleges that Walmart endangers shoppers and nearby residents by not actively monitoring its overnight guests, saying it created an "unregulated campground."
McKenzie is represented by William Starr, a Hopkins attorney. Walmart, meanwhile, intends to defend against the lawsuit.
"Our sympathies remain with the friends and family impacted by this tragic event three years ago," Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said. "We plan to defend the company and will respond in court to the complaint as appropriate."
Walmart has a well-established policy of inviting campers to stay onsite, and several websites point travelers to stores where overnight camping is permitted.
"While we do not offer electrical services or accommodation typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers," the company says on its website.
"Consequently, we do permit RV parking on our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws."
McKenzie and her two daughters stopped at the Fridley store the morning of Aug. 6, 2019, after dropping her mother and another relative off for an early-morning flight. She decided to let the two girls continue sleeping in her car while she went inside to shop.
Roberto Lino Hipolito, 74, and his wife were staying in their camper in the lot. After finishing making breakfast on a butane camp stove, he put the stove back in his vehicle without waiting for it to cool. Hipolito placed bedding on top of the stove before parking closer to the front of the lot next to McKenzie's vehicle.
Hipolito's vehicle caught fire while he was inside the store, spreading quickly to the cars parked nearby. McKenzie left the store to discover firefighters responding to her car being engulfed by flames as her daughters remained trapped inside. Emergency responders had to restrain her as she tried to run to her children.
Ty'rah was in cardiac arrest but was revived at the scene after being pulled from the vehicle. However, she died at a hospital a day later from smoke inhalation and burns that covered nearly 60% of her body. McKenzie's other daughter suffered permanent injuries.
Her lawsuit points out that Walmart had surveillance cameras that could observe the activities of those staying in its lot and should have done more.
"Walmart failed to monitor the activities of overnight campers, specifically the Hipolitos, though having the capability to do so," according to the lawsuit.
Hipolito was charged with second-degree manslaughter, but the charge was dismissed when he pleaded guilty to two counts of negligent fires. Those felony counts were reduced to misdemeanors after he served 48 days in jail. Hipolito also received three years of probation.
A Hennepin County judge in 2020 approved a $130,000 settlement in a civil case filed on behalf of McKenzie's surviving daughter against Hipolito.
In a recent interview, McKenzie described a lingering trauma for her and Taraji, now 12, who struggles socially at school with the visible scars of her injuries. The experience has rendered her daughter "basically a loner" at school, McKenzie said. She said Taraji must also see a pulmonary specialist monthly while taking multiple medications.
"Our lives have completely changed overall — more down than up, you know," McKenzie said.
"People look down at your situation and everybody just thinks they could've done better than what I've done. Looking back, what keeps me going is me knowing what kind of mother I was with my kids."