For most of 2019, developments on the fatal Beaufort County boat crash dominated headlines and captivated audiences across South Carolina –– mostly because the accused driver is a member of one of the most powerful families in the Palmetto State.
And now at the beginning of 2020, a motion was filed in the wrongful death lawsuit requesting a change of venue from Hampton County — a place that has been called “a judicial hell hole” — back to where it was originally filed in Beaufort County, where 19-year-old Mallory Beach died Feb. 24 in a boating accident. Twenty-year-old Paul Murdaugh was identified by Beach’s boyfriend as the driver that night and alleged to have been highly intoxicated at the time, according to police reports.
Beach’s body was missing for a week before she was found.
Mallory Beach’s mother Renee Beach filed the wrongful death suit in Beaufort County in March 29, then moved the case to Hampton County weeks later.
Murdaugh was charged with three felony BUIs in the crash, but he was not named in the lawsuit –– a move that was widely criticized on social media, where commenters said he should be have been held accountable for his actions.
Instead, the lawsuit blames Parker’s Corporation, Richard Alexander Murdaugh, and Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr. — Paul’s father and brother — for Beach’s wrongful death.
The lawsuit accuses Parker’s 55 Gas Station in Ridgeland of selling alcohol to one of the six boaters — all under the age of 21 — in the hours leading up to the fatal crash near Parris Island.
Richard Alexander Murdaugh, who owns the boat in the crash, was accused in the lawsuit of failing to supervise his son when he knew or should have known his son was illegally using a license to buy and consume alcohol.”
Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr. was accused of allowing his younger brother (Paul) to use his driver’s license to purchase alcohol at Parker’s gas station. The alcohol was later shared with the five other boaters, according to the suit.
Because of Paul Murdaugh’s powerful family ties, two judges asked to be recused from the case and requested the Chief Justice assign the case to someone else. Paul’s grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather all served as solicitors of the 14th judicial circuit from 1920-2016.
An attorney representing Parker’s filed the motion motion to transfer venue on the grounds it “would promote convenience of the witnesses and ends of justice.” Parker’s then filed five witness affidavits supporting the change of venue.
While the recently filed affidavits accompanying the motion for a change of venue show geographic reasons for the trial to move, historical context gives a better insight for why Parker’s would want to change the venue —and perhaps why this case has sparked so much interest.
Judicial Hell Hole?
A 2004 report by the American Tort Reform Foundation named Hampton County the No. 3 Judicial Hell Hole in the U.S.
While this report is dated, many of the problems and the names in the report still exist in Hampton County today and play relevant in the case. Specifically, the report named both the Murdaugh Law Firm and Beach’s lawyer, Mark Tinsley.
For years, South Carolina law allowed plaintiffs to file civil lawsuits against businesses “virtually in any county in the state” — specifically wherever the corporate defendant does business or owns property.
Because of Hampton County’s longtime reputation of siding with plaintiffs and rewarding unusually high for damages, a large amount of plaintiffs went to Hampton County to file their lawsuits, the report said.
In one year, more than 67 percent of the county’s lawsuits were filed by residents from other counties and 41 percent of the cases involved incidents that didn’t occur in Hampton County, the report said.
According to the report, one law firm “brings a majority of the major suits in Hampton County,” — and that is Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Elzroth & Detrick.
The report listed “intimidation through use of subpoenas” as one of the reasons why Hampton was a Judicial Hell Hole.
The attorney named in the example of this? Mark Tinsley, Beach’s lawyer.
The report also said the “litigation climate” hurt the economy in Hampton County by scarring away businesses. In the early 2000s, Wal-Mart considered opening a store in Hampton County, but decided against it after “a lawyer reportedly warned company executives that locating a store there could place the retailer’s entire South Carolina operation at risk.
Still today, Hampton remains one of the few counties in South Carolina without a Walmart. It’s one of the poorest counties in the Palmetto State with a medium household income of $32,147 and a declining population.
There are three ongoing cases associated with the boat crash — Beach’s lawsuit, a federal lawsuit filed by an insurance company against the Murdaughs over claims from the civil suit, and the criminal case against Paul Murdaugh.
Murdaugh is currently out on bond awaiting trial. Though he faces three felony BUI charges, Murdaugh does not have to wear any sort of alcohol-monitoring device while out on bond. In July, the court loosened the only restriction listed in his bond agreement and allowed him to travel anywhere in the state. He was never arrested, nor did he spend any time behind bars.
Sources have told FITSNews there was”reportedly a separate investigation underway into allegations of ‘political meddling’ in the aftermath of the crash.” Investigators also were looking into whether or not Mallory Beach and her boyfriend Anthony Cook tried to get off the boat while Murdaugh was allegedly too drunk to drive.
According to a recently released Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office report, a deputy documented that it was “unclear” who was driving the boat despite the fact that Anthony Cook told authorities Murdaugh was the driver and none of the other boaters said anything to contradict that.
Cook told officers Paul was so intoxicated while driving that night that he “begged” him to let him drive the boat and he refused, according to the report.
This confusion at the scene ultimately muddled the investigation as Murdaugh was never offered a breathalyzer at the scene and investigators had multiple suspects for weeks after the crash.
A trial date has not been set in Murdaugh’s criminal case, according to Robert Kittle of the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office.
FITSNews will continue to keep a close eye on this trio of cases. Stay tuned..
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an award-winning journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].