Me v. Ikea: A Lawsuit

500 Days of IKEA
An open fracture is just what it sounds like: a broken bone exposed by torn flesh. I know this because the bottom of my foot split open when an 80-pound box landed on it—the result of an otherwise uneventful trip to Ikea. My boyfriend and I had just moved in together and taken the obligatory day trip to christen our casa with affordable home accents. With the merging of the books came the need for a bookcase, and we selected a sleek, three-shelf solution from the Ikea showroom.

We then scoured the self-service level, which is really more of a warehouse than a navigable retail environment. Perhaps there’d been a build-up from weekend traffic, because large boxes were strewn about, leaning up against the industrial-sized shelving. I was too busy envisioning myself lazing about our new home on a faux-sheepskin, a cappuccino resting nearby on a three-legged stool, to worry about possibly losing a limb.

“Found it,” I announced from Aisle 4.

I crouched down to read the label of package near the floor. That’s when I noticed a tall cardboard mass moving toward me from above. I stood up and stepped backward, but it was already too late. The eighty-pound box, which I later learned was the very bookcase I hoped to purchase, landed flat on the outer edge of my right foot. Red seeped across my favorite powder blue sneakers at an alarming pace. I sat on the floor squealing until an employee appeared with a wheelchair and hastily rolled me out to the curb.

The store manager met us outside and assured me that Ikea would cover the cost of an ambulance. But since he refused to provide any type of written documentation, we called 911 to file our own report. Two officers arrived within minutes to take our statements while EMS tended to my bloated foot, which by the time we got to the hospital, resembled an impressionist sunset.

“Does it hurt?” the doctor in the ER asked before he stitched it up.

“Yes.”

It actually didn’t hurt because I couldn’t feel anything. But I was afraid that the numbness might wear off, and for someone with a low threshold for being without-painkillers, I wasn’t willing to take that chance.

I spent the first few weeks post-injury with my foot in a surgical bootie, elevated on the armrest of a pre-existing Ikea couch. I had a crushed toe, fractured foot, and several stitches. Immobile, I took my OxyContin as prescribed and stared at the ceiling. I must have been deeply entranced when a woman from Ikea’s insurance company first contacted me. I don’t remember the precise dialogue; only that she wanted my account of what happened. It went something like this:

“A box fell on my foot,” I told her.

Is that spot on the ceiling a stain or a bug?

“Did you touch the box?”

Oh wait, it’s not moving. Stain.

“I don’t know.”

There it goes. Definitely a bug.

“Well, if you touched it, I’m afraid we’re not at fault,” she told me.

After speaking with a lawyer, I learned that New York state law does not necessarily favor the honest. Had I been planning to sue Ikea out the arsel, I would have needed to know precisely what it was in their warehouse of horrors that had caused the box to topple—just to prove it wasn’t me. I would have also needed to notify the store of unsafe conditions and then given them a reasonable amount of time to remediate the problem. I’m not sure what bothered me more, a law that rewards planning your own accident or a multi-billion dollar corporation that allows customers to play longshoremen in the basement.

When people find out you’re a prospective plaintiff in a personal injury lawsuit, they immediately start speculating what kind of settlement you might get.

“My brother got $90,000 after a shelving unit collapsed on his leg at Home Depot,” my ex-landlord told me when I hobbled outside to meet him with the keys to my old apartment. At that point, the only action I’d seriously considered was writing a strongly worded letter. I called the store manager instead.

“That thing could have killed a kid!” I told him.

I would repeat this phrase ad nauseam to family and friends in the months that followed. The outer edge of my foot remained red and swollen for over a year, and it hurt to walk long distances in anything but an oversized running shoe. My only recourse with Ikea (besides of course hate-shopping the catalogue) was to take legal action. I waited over two years, until I knew there was permanent damage, before filing suit.

“They’re going to say it was partially your fault,” my attorney told me.

Shared blame meant shared liability; Ikea would likely only compensate me for a portion of what my pain and suffering was deemed to be worth. To determine what kind of case I had, opposing counsel deposed me for hours, during which time I attempted to answer the same question, “How did the box fall?” over and over. The truth, “I don’t know because I was looking for a bookshelf,” was apparently insufficient. Even now, I can only speculate—Someone jostling boxes nearby? The wind from my hunky beau’s swishing man arms? An imperceptible shift in the earth’s crust?

They also questioned the veracity of my injury (who needs pedal phalanges?) and sent me to their own doctor for an evaluation.

“Does this hurt?” he asked while touching my toe lightly with the medical equivalent of an eye shadow brush.

“No.”

“Hmm…” he said, shaking his head at my X-rays. “I have to say, I don’t see anything wrong.” Yes, the fracture and open wound had both healed in three years, something Ikea’s lawyer had also pointed out. But even an African Grey Parrot, who can tell the difference between different types of nuts based on shape and color alone, could have voiced one important concern: One of my feet did not look like the other.

About a year later, I received a letter from my attorney with the dollar amount negotiated in the settlement agreement. My cut after legal fees: $10,586. It hardly seemed worth my ongoing footwear dilemma, let alone nearly losing a toe. When I went to sign the final release, I had a momentary panic. I was so caught up in the idea that a cash payment would somehow make it right that I didn’t think about what would happen if it didn’t.

The reality is that no amount of money can un-crush a toe or revert a foot to its original color. A lawsuit doesn’t end in a letter of apology or promise to do better next time—not even a free kitchen consultation. Instead, a piece of your personhood will be reduced to a lump sum. Take it or leave it, you’ll be settling either way.

 

Sarah Kasbeer is by no means qualified to dispense legal advice. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Hairpin, xoJane, and elsewhere.

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