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Walmart settles suit over worker’s death

Maria Jose Santos and Filippe Moura with lawyer Brian Joyce (right).

Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff

Maria Jose Santos and Filippe Moura with lawyer Brian Joyce (right).

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has settled a multimillion-dollar suit that sought to hold the Arkansas-based retail giant accountable for a construction worker’s death during renovations at its Walpole store.

Romulo de Oliveira Santos, a 47-year-old Brazilian immigrant on his first night on the Walmart job, was electrocuted in 2008 after another worker cut through live electrical wires hidden in a wall the crew was demolishing. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration later cited two subcontractors for exposing workers to electrical hazards. Walmart was not cited.

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Santos’s family, however, sued Walmart, along with the company’s subcontractors, for $5 million, alleging the worker’s death was part of a pattern of unsafe practices at Walmart construction sites.

After a 3½-year legal battle, the case was settled in February, according to Middlesex Superior Court records. Details of the settlement have not been made public, but the Santos family lawyer, Brian A. Joyce, has previously told the Globe that the family would not settle the case for less than “millions.”

Santos’s family, visiting from Brazil to accept an award from a workers advocacy group, on Tuesday called the settlement an acknowledgment of their loss. They remembered Santos as a man with an infectious smile who had come to the United States “running after his dreams” for a better life.

“It’s emotional,” said Santos’s 75-year-old mother, Maria Jose Santos, speaking through an interpreter. “Justice has been made.”

A Walmart spokesman, offering condolences to Santos’s family and friends, said the resolution has “allowed everyone involved to move forward.”

Still, the company appeared to deflect responsibility for the accident, saying that it depended on the general contractor, Texas-based Kekoka Construction, to oversee the Walpole job.

Kekoka was formed more than a decade ago solely to work on Walmart remodeling projects.

“We take safety seriously, and when Walmart hired Kekoka Construction as a general contractor, which is common within the construction industry, we relied on Kekoka to manage all aspects of the construction project,” said spokesman Randy Hargrove.

“This included hiring all subcontractors, ensuring safe working conditions onsite, and confirming proper licensing of any subcontractors and workers.”

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, a workers advocacy group, called the Santos case an important step in making sure that corporate clients, such as Walmart, are held responsible for the safety of their work sites and safety practices of the contractors they hire.

Too often, she said, “unless there is a lawsuit, they’re off the hook, and so that’s a big problem.”

On Tuesday, Joyce, the family’s attorney as well as a state senator from Milton, said he and his clients are pleased the case has been resolved.

“This is like the case I went to law school for,” Joyce said, later turning to Santos’s mother. “After a while I felt like I knew your son. I felt a responsibility to you.”

Santos’s mother dabbed tears from her eyes, then listened as Santos’s 23-year-old nephew Filippe Moura recalled one of the good times with his uncle: the day Santos drove up dressed as Santa, surprising the young boy and other kids in the neighborhood.

“I said Santa is in my uncle’s car,” Moura remembered. “My mother said, ‘No, no, your uncle let him borrow the car.’ ”

This, Moura said, is how he and his family will cope with the pain of losing Santos:

“In our house, we just think about the happy moments, the happy stories.”

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ailworth.
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