EVERGREEN PARK, Ill. — The family of a Chicago-area Walmart employee who died of COVID-19 has filed a lawsuit against the retail giant, citing negligence in keeping its employees protected against the coronavirus.
Wando Evans, 51, is one of two employees to die of the virus at the same Walmart store in Evergreen Park, a village about 15 miles south of Chicago. He died March 25 and his co-worker, Phillip Thomas, 48, died four days later.
WGN-TV reported that Evans had worked as an overnight stocker and maintenance associate for Walmart for 15 years. Thomas was a nine-year veteran worker.
A medical examiner found that both men died of COVID-19 complications. According to the Chicago Tribune, obesity was a contributing factor in Evans' death.
"When we initially took on this case, we were trying to help the Evans family get answers," attorney Tony Kalogerakos said in a statement on Facebook. "We didn't realize this would be the first wrongful death lawsuit in the country for disregarding COVID.
“We now have Walmart employees from around the country thanking us because Walmart finally stopped ignoring their employee requests, and are attempting to follow CDC measures to protect its essential workers. Although it took two deaths at the same Walmart, it's never too late to start implementing safe procedures.”
A Walmart spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying company officials "take the issue seriously and will respond with the court once we have been served with the complaint," NBC Chicago reported.
The lawsuit filed Monday on behalf of Evans' brother, Toney Evans, alleges willful and wanton misconduct, reckless disregard and gross negligence, the Tribune reported. According to the newspaper, the suit alleges store management ignored Evans' complaints that he was experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, as were other employees of the store.
Reuters reported that the suit claims Walmart also hired new workers in a rushed process that failed to screen them for COVID-19 symptoms.
Evans was sent home sick March 23, according to his family. He was found dead in his home two days later.
The family's timeline conflicts with that of Walmart officials, who said in a statement following the deaths that neither Evans nor Thomas had been in the store for at least a week before each man died, according to USA Today.
"We are heartbroken to learn of the passing of two associates at our Evergreen Park store, and we are mourning along with their families," Walmart officials told the newspaper last week.
The court filing states Walmart management did not properly clean the store or promote adequate social distancing guidelines prior to Evans' and Thomas' deaths, NBC Chicago reported. Evans' family also claims managers failed to inform employees that some workers had symptoms.
The document alleges Evans and other employees were not provided with personal protective equipment, like masks, gloves or sanitizer, the news station said.
The lawsuit states those failures violated the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Tribune reported.
Kalogerakos said in a statement obtained by the newspaper that he has asked OSHA to investigate how Walmart handled the situation.
"At a minimum, (managers) were responsible for notifying store workers that a colleague had symptoms consistent with COVID-19, providing their employees personal protective equipment such as masks and latex gloves, implementing social distancing and sending exposed employees' home until cleared by medical professionals," the attorney said.
NBC Chicago reported that the deaths of Evans and Thomas prompted Walmart to hire a third-party company to clean and sanitize all "high-touch surfaces" in the Evergreen Park store, including the front entrances, carts, registers and bathrooms.
The retailer also began implementing stricter safeguards in all its stores.
"Additionally, we have taken steps across the country to protect our associates and customers, including additional cleaning measures, installing sneeze guards at registers, placing social distancing decals on the floors and limiting the number of customers in a store at a given time," spokesman Randy Hargrove said in a statement. "We'll continue to take steps, such as screening associates, conducting temperature checks, and providing masks and gloves for associates that want to use them."
Daryl Bell, a friend of Evans, told NBC Chicago last week that he was saddened to learn about the death of his friend, who he described as a religious man with a good heart. Evans was engaged to be married, he said.
"I'm devastated because I know I won't get a chance to say goodbye to him," Bell told the news station.