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Lack's Beach Service on hook for one of largest wrongful death payouts in SC history

The Sun News 9/23/2022 Adam Benson, The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.)

Sep. 21—MYRTLE BEACH — A nearly $21 million judgment handed to Lack's Beach Service over the summer stemming from the 2018 drowning of a vacationer would be the fifth highest wrongful death verdict in South Carolina's history if fully paid out.

That's among details included in new court filings asking for leniency and a new trial months after a jury found the company culpable in the death of 41-year-old Zerihun Wolde.

In July, jurors ruled a "dual role" model used by Lack's allowing it to profit from beach chair and umbrellas rentals in exchange for lifeguards along sections of Myrtle Beach oceanfront was to blame for the death, and awarded his estate $21 million in damages.

Wolde's fiance, Meswaet Abel, filed a civil suit in November 2019 initially naming Lack's Beach Service and the City of Myrtle Beach as defendants. The city was dropped from proceedings shortly before a week-long trial began.

"The jury's award was based on improper considerations and a new trial ... is warranted," Lack's lawyer, Joseph Thompson, wrote in a Sept. 16 motion. "The jury verdict was excessive, should shock the conscience of the court and thus a new trial absolute must be ordered."

Lack's legal team previously claimed its contract with the city — which runs through 2024 — limits its liability to $300,000 under state tort laws, saying the pact with Myrtle Beach makes it an arm of the government.

In his 39-page filing, Thompson accused the jury of ruling with passion instead of facts, pointing to a disclosure by Lack's general manager Weslyn Lack-Chickering that her company was in debt by $473,350 at the time of Wolde's death and carried a $3 million insurance policy.

"Despite this evidence, the jury returned an award of $7 million on top of the actual damages award exceeding $13 million — a total number reflecting the jury's intention to destroy Lack's as a going concern," Thompson wrote.

Days before the court filings, Horry County leaders said they plan to move away from the dual role life guarding system when its current contracts lapse.

"We need to separate how life guarding and umbrella rentals are done. Right now, it's together and you've seen some things about that, but we all recognize now it's not the same beach as it was seven years ago," assistant county administrator Randall Webster told a county council subcommittee Sept. 13.

This story was originally published September 21, 2022 5:30 AM.

(c)2022 The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, S.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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