South Carolina

Powerful SC family sued in federal court over fatal Beaufort County boat crash case

The South Carolina family at the center of the fatal Beaufort County boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach is facing another lawsuit — this time in federal court.

In a Sept. 20 lawsuit, Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance asked the court to relieve the company of financial responsibilities for any claims by 20-year-old Paul Murdaugh’s father and brother in the Mallory Beach wrongful death suit filed by Beach’s mother.

The request for insurance coverage by Murdaugh’s father, Richard Alexander Murdaugh, is the second time in a year that he has asked an insurance company to cover a wrongful death claim.

His son Paul Murdaugh, of Hampton, has been charged with three counts of felony boating under the influence in the Feb. 24 fatal crash. He pleaded not guilty to those charges in May and hasn’t spent any time in jail since the crash.

He has not been named in the wrongful death lawsuit filed in the Hampton County Court of Common Pleas, but his father and brother, Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr., were listed as defendants, along with the gas station alleged to have sold him alcohol that day.

Because he wasn’t named in that lawsuit, Paul Murdaugh has avoided being sued in federal court as well.

The wrongful death suit isn’t blaming the accused driver of the boat for Beach’s death. Instead, the lawsuit placed responsibility on Paul Murdaugh’s father and his older brother for allowing the 20-year-old to use false identification to obtain alcohol before the crash that killed.

Philadelphia Indemnity’s lawsuit against the Murdaughs, filed in U.S. District Court for South Carolina-Beaufort Division, also names Renee Beach, Mallory Beach’s mother, as a defendant. The lawsuit was filed in federal court because the insurance company is based in Pennsylvania and because the potential costs defending the two Murdaughs in the case “potentially exceeds $75,000,” according to court documents.

The Murdaughs requested that two commercial insurance policies cover them in the wrongful death suit. The 17-page complaint stated several reasons why Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance has no duty to cover the Murdaughs in the case.

  • For starters, the Murdaughs are not insured as individuals under the policies, according to the federal lawsuit. Richard Alexander Murdaugh is the named insured in the policy, but the conduct he is accused of in the lawsuit did not have any connections with his business.
  • The policies specifically cover injuries from “private hunting operations,” according to the federal suit. None of the court documents or police reports from the incident mentioned anything about a hunting trip on the night of Feb. 23.
  • The insurance documents specifically state that the policies do not apply to bodily injury arising out of the ownership or use of a watercraft, according to the lawsuit.

Neither of Murdaugh’s policies named a specific business covered.

The wrongful death lawsuit does not place Richard Alexander Murdaugh and Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr. anywhere near the accident on the night Mallory Beach died. Rather, but claims their “combined and concurred” conduct of enabling Paul’s behavior directly caused the injuries suffered by Beach.

In addition, the insurance company wants to deny the Murdaughs coverage because it alleges wrongdoing in “the monitoring or supervision of Murdaugh’s/Murdaugh, Jr.’s minor son/minor brother (Paul),” the federal lawsuit said.

Paul Murdaugh’s father owned the boat that crashed into a piling of a small bridge around 2:20 a.m. just outside the main entrance to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the lead investigative agency. Law enforcement officers at the scene also noted that all five boaters that night appeared to be “grossly intoxicated.”

The Murdaugh family’s prominence in the state has caused several officials to step away from the wrongful death suit and the criminal case. Two judges have recused themselves from hearing the civil case.

Three generations of Murdaughs have held the elected position of solicitor for the 14th Judicial Circuit, which serves Beaufort, Hampton, Jasper, Allendale and Colleton counties, since 1920. Randolph Murdaugh III, who succeeded his father in the post, served from 1986 to 2006. He continues to work as a contractor prosecuting criminal cases for the office. His son, Richard Alexander Murdaugh, voluntarily assists.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office recused itself from investigating into where the boaters received or purchased alcohol on March 25 because of a “long-standing relationship with the Murdaugh family.”

A day after the crash, the 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone asked South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to reassign the case because three of the boaters are related to employees of Stone’s office.

Randolph Murdaugh, Paul Murdaugh’s grandfather, who was originally a defendant in the wrongful death lawsuit for allegedly allowing underage drinkers to consume alcohol on his property before the crash, was dropped from the case in May.

Another death settlement?

Less than a year ago, Richard Alexander Murdaugh settled an unrelated wrongful death claim. He was the only defendant listed in the settlement filed in December by the family of a 57-year-old woman who died after a trip and fall in Hampton County on Feb. 26, 2018, according to a court documents.

The petition for wrongful death settlement does not say where she died or how she tripped.

Richard Alexander Murdaugh and his insurance provider, Lloyds of London, agreed to pay the woman’s beneficiaries $500,000 for personal liability in a wrongful death and $5,000 for medical payment from the accident, according to court documents.

Of that money, $177,500 was paid to the Moss, Kuhn & Fleming, P.A. law firm, where Richard Alexander Murdaugh previously worked, for attorney fees and expenses.

Cory Fleming represented the woman’s beneficiaries in this case. Fleming has many ties to the Murdaugh family, and spoke at Randolph Murdaugh’s Order of the Palmetto Ceremony last September. Fleming also represented Paul Murdaugh when he was charged with possession of alcohol two years ago when he was 18.

photo from Facebook

That charge was dismissed on July 5, 2018, after Paul Murdaugh was sentenced to an alcohol-diversion program. It was not mentioned at his bond hearing in May when discussing his criminal background, nor was it discussed in July when his attorneys requested less restrictive bond conditions. The Attorney General’s Office asked the judge to require Murdaugh to wear an alcohol-monitoring bracelet while on bond, which was denied.

Even though Murdaugh faces BUI charges, his bond conditions did not ban him from drinking alcohol or driving a boat.

In some DUI cases involving defendants under the drinking age, such as that of a South Carolina 17-year-old accused of killing another teen while driving drunk the same week of Murdaugh’s hearing, a judge requires the defendant to wear an alcohol-detecting ankle monitor while awaiting trial.

The case has drawn widespread media attention, as well as outrage on social media. Commenters are looking for any perceived special treatment given to Murdaugh.

“I was an alcohol and drug counselor for 23 years and learned a few things,” Annie Bates of Irmo wrote in a recent letter to the editor in The State newspaper. “If Murdaugh gets off lightly because of his family connections, he will continue his present behavior because he hasn’t suffered any negative consequences.”

Criminal Case

A trial date has not been set in Paul Murdaugh’s criminal case, according to Robert Kittle, spokesperson for the South Carolina Attorney General’s office.

A Beaufort County grand jury indicted Murdaugh on April 18 — what would have been Beach’s 20th birthday — on one count of boating under the influence causing death and two counts of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury.

Beach, also of Hampton, was ejected from the 17-foot boat Murdaugh is accused of driving when it crashed into a bridge around 2:20 a.m. in Archers Creek. Her body was found a week later in a marshy area about 5 miles from the crash.

The five surviving passengers in the boat, including Murdaugh, were injured, according to police reports.

At the scene of the crash, law enforcement officers did not give Paul Murdaugh a sobriety test.

He was taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where SCDNR officers say Randolph and Alexander Murdaugh blocked investigators from questioning him and another boater who had also been identified as a possible driver, agency officials later said.

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Mandy Matney is an award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed shark enthusiast from Kansas. She worked for newspapers in Missouri and Illinois before she realized Midwestern winters are horrible, then moved to Hilton Head in 2016. She is the breaking news editor at the Island Packet.