On the morning of February 24, 2019, a boat accident sent shockwaves through South Carolina. Paul Murdaugh, at the helm, collided with a piling on the R.C. Berkeley Bridge. The crash claimed the life of passenger Mallory Beach and led to a wrongful death lawsuit.
In July 2023, the family of Mallory Beach agreed to a $15 million lawsuit with one of the defendants.
Boating in South Carolina
South Carolina boasts 3,000 miles of coastline, 8,000 miles of rivers, and 46,000 acres of lakes. All of this water makes the state a prime destination for boat enthusiasts.
According to the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation, more than 500,000 boats are registered in South Carolina (roughly 1 boat for every 10 South Carolinians).
With so many boats on the water, understanding the laws and repercussions of boat accidents is critical.
Tragedy on the water: The Paul Murdaugh boat crash
At approximately 2:00 a.m. on February 24, 2019, Paul Murdaugh crashed his boat into a channel marker and a piling on the R.C. Berkeley Bridge with such force that it ejected some passengers into the water.
One of those passengers was Mallory Beach, who was unconscious when she was ejected from the boat. Her body was found a week later, roughly five miles from the bridge.
If the name Paul Murdaugh sounds familiar, it’s probably because he was murdered, along with his mother, in 2021 by his father, fourth-generation South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh. The murder was the subject of a Netflix series, and the trial captivated the nation in the winter of 2023.
Boating under the influence
Following the crash, Paul Murdaugh was charged with three felony counts of boating under the influence. He had pleaded not guilty to all charges and was awaiting trial at the time of his death.
In South Carolina, the law strictly prohibits operating a boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Penalties for such offenses include imprisonment, fines, loss of license, and compulsory safety courses. If the offense leads to serious injury or death, the charge can escalate to a felony, attracting penalties of up to 25 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
Wrongful death lawsuit and South Carolina’s dram shop laws
The family of Mallory Beach filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Alex Murdaugh; Luther’s, a dockside bar and restaurant in Beaufort, South Carolina; Parker’s 55, a convenience store in Ridgeland, South Carolina; and Kristy and James Woods, homeowners in Beaufort, South Carolina.
According to the lawsuit, Mallory and her friends started the fateful night by getting alcohol at Parker’s 55 in Ridgeland. The group of teenagers then went to the Woods’ home, where they consumed the alcohol. Finally, the group consumed even more alcohol at Luther’s, before crashing the boat.
The wrongful death lawsuit was based, in part, on South Carolina’s dram shop laws.
Dram shop laws hold establishments that serve alcohol (bars, restaurants, liquor stores) liable for serving intoxicated patrons who later cause an accident.
In South Carolina, an establishment can be held liable for damages caused by an intoxicated patron if the following conditions are met:
- The establishment sold alcohol to a minor or a person who the establishment knew or should have known was intoxicated,
- The patron consumed the alcohol sold by the establishment, and
- The consumption of alcohol was the cause of the injury, death, or property damage.
Similarly, if a social host intentionally serves alcohol to a person under 21 years old, the host can be held liable to the minor or any third person who may be harmed due to the minor’s intoxication.
Mallory Beach wrongful death settlement
In July 2023, the family of Mallory Beach agreed to a $15 million settlement with Parker’s 55, the gas station that sold alcohol to the underage Paul Murdaugh on the night of the crash.
The $15 million settlement, which must still be approved by a judge, comes less than a month before the civil trial against Alex Murdaugh.
Boat safety regulations and operator responsibility in South Carolina
Each year, the U.S. Coast Guard identifies operator inattention, improper lookout, operator inexperience, and alcohol use as the top contributing factors in boat accidents.
The tragic crash involving Mallory Beach underscores the vital importance of observing safety measures, which include having appropriate equipment onboard, maintaining speed limits, and refraining from operating a boat under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Establishing liability in South Carolina boat accidents
The process of establishing liability in a South Carolina boat accident can be complex, often requiring the plaintiff to prove negligence on the part of a boat operator, a boat owner, or even a manufacturer if a defective component contributed to the crash. What’s more, as the case of Mallory Beach demonstrates, third parties may be held liable under South Carolina’s dram shop laws.
As we enjoy the tranquil waters of South Carolina’s lakes, rivers, and sea, let us remember that safety should always be our first priority. If tragedy strikes and you or a loved one is injured, we’re here to help answer your legal questions and guide you through the process of receiving the compensation you deserve.
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