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A Convenience-Store Magnate, Teen Drinking and a Fatal Boat Crash: The Legal Case Shaking South Carolina (Excerpt)

A Convenience-Store Magnate, Teen Drinking and a Fatal Boat Crash: The Legal Case Shaking South Carolina (Excerpt)

The sensational killing of two members of the Murdaugh family has become intertwined with a lawsuit aimed at the state’s liability laws

Source: https://www.wsj.com/

August 15, 2022

The saga of disgraced South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh includes five deaths, millions of dollars allegedly absconded from clients and, in July, indictments accusing him of murdering his wife and son, to which he pleaded not guilty.

It also spawned a pair of explosive and potentially groundbreaking lawsuits, with one tentatively set to go to trial this fall.

On one side sits the family of Mallory Beach, a 19-year-old killed in 2019 when a boat driven by Mr. Murdaugh’s late son, Paul, crashed into a bridge to Parris Island. On the other sits Greg Parker, a wealthy convenience store magnate whose company Ms. Beach’s family sued for selling alcohol to an underage Paul before the boat crash.

Mr. Parker denies his company’s culpability in the boat crash, saying the store clerk who sold the alcohol did nothing wrong because Paul Murdaugh presented a valid ID belonging to his older brother.

Mr. Parker, whose Savannah-based Parker’s Kitchen chain has 71 stores in Georgia and South Carolina, is effectively the last defendant standing as others have settled and the Murdaugh family’s assets are frozen. Under an unusual feature of South Carolina law, that means he could be held 100% financially responsible for the girl’s death, with damages potentially running to tens of millions of dollars.

“I’ve spent 47 years trying to create a company that I’m really, really proud of,” Mr. Parker said. He has declared repeatedly that he won’t settle the case, because to settle would be “to have Parker’s name besmirched.”

“That’s what’s wrong with America now,” he said. “People should stand up for what’s right. And I’m standing up for the truth.”

The wrongful-death suit led to a second lawsuit against Mr. Parker personally, accusing him of inflicting intentional emotional distress on the Beach family, which Mr. Parker denies, with an aggressive defense, including a covert investigation into the boat passengers.

The litigation so far hasn’t featured in the lurid headlines associated with the deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, which took place at the family’s hunting estate near Hampton, S.C., in June 2021. But it has become the poster child for tort reform in a lobbying campaign underwritten by Mr. Parker, who has staked much of his reputation and personal fortune on the case. His goal is to change the way financial damages in certain lawsuits in South Carolina are awarded.

The Beach litigation has also had its fantastical twists, with accusations that Mr. Parker’s team improperly plied a boat passenger’s underage friend with alcohol for information, an effort to have Beach family lawyer Mark Tinsley removed from both cases and an appeal to the state supreme court to claw back from Mr. Tinsley 5,600 pages of formerly private correspondence between Mr. Parker’s team and a crisis communications firm.

Mr. Tinsley, a personal-injury lawyer in Allendale, S.C., said he wants to take Mr. Parker “for everything he’s got” because the case has become personal. Mr. Tinsley said he is offended by the lengths to which Mr. Parker’s team has gone in the continuing investigation, which has made an excruciating situation for the Beaches even worse.

“I can prove everything he did and I’m going to, and he’s going to write me a big check,” Mr. Tinsley said.

The boat crash in many ways began the unraveling of the Murdaugh empire. The wrongful-death suit began bringing out financial information that spiraled into an inquiry into Alex Murdaugh’s alleged financial wrongdoing.

Mr. Murdaugh was the fourth-generation scion of a family that ran the solicitor’s, or district attorney’s, office for the five-county 14th Judicial Circuit in southeastern South Carolina for nearly a century, while also running a dominant personal-injury firm.

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, known as SLED, has taken over Murdaugh-related investigations, given the family’s close working relationship with local law enforcement.

Before he was accused in the double homicide of his wife and son last month, Mr. Murdaugh faced more than 80 felony counts in what prosecutors said was a decadelong scheme to defraud his personal-injury clients of $8.5 million. He has been jailed since October, weeks after he was charged with insurance fraud in a failed assisted-suicide attempt in a roadside shooting last Labor Day weekend. He has pleaded not guilty to most of the fraud and other counts against him, in addition to the murder charges.

Based on information uncovered in the double-homicide investigation, SLED is looking into two other suspicious deaths: that of Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old classmate of Mr. Murdaugh’s older son whose body was found on a country road in 2015; and Gloria Satterfield, the 57-year-old family housekeeper who died after falling down the front steps at the Murdaugh home in 2018.

In the days before the killing of his wife and son on June 7, 2021, Mr. Murdaugh was under immense pressure in the boat-crash wrongful-death case. A judge had scheduled a hearing for June 10 to consider a motion by Mr. Tinsley to compel Mr. Murdaugh to turn over his financial information, which had been requested eight months earlier and was part of the wrangling over Mr. Murdaugh’s insurance coverage and ability to pay potential damages.

The state’s chief prosecutor last month said the evidence collected while investigating the alleged financial crimes provides “the background and the motive” for the double homicide.

Mr. Parker said it is surreal to be wrapped up in the Murdaugh morass and offensive to be accused in the death of Mallory Beach. “It’s an incredible tragedy,” he said. “But we’re not responsible.”

Mr. Tinsley said in court filings that Mr. Parker’s company shares responsibility for the crash because the clerk made an obvious mistake when checking the ID Paul Murdaugh handed her when buying the alcohol. The clerk should have noticed that Paul’s slight build didn’t match up with the height and weight listed on his big brother’s ID, said Mr. Tinsley.

“When you stress the speed of the transaction such that the people don’t even read the information on the ID, it’s apparent what’s going to happen,” Mr. Tinsley said. He said Mr. Parker knows that state law and store policy on alcohol sales aren’t rigorously followed at Parker’s Kitchen stores, a claim Mr. Parker denies.

Night of drinking

The fatal boat crash happened in the foggy, early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2019.

Paul Murdaugh started the prior evening by buying alcohol at a Parker’s Kitchen in Ridgeland, S.C., according to files released by state investigators. The store is a few miles from his grandfather Randolph Murdaugh III’s fishing cabin, where Paul, his then-girlfriend Morgan Doughty and two other couples planned to spend the night, according to the files.

Video footage shows Paul circling the interior of the store, selecting his purchases and approaching the checkout counter. He was 19 at the time, but he hands clerk Tajeeha Cohen a driver’s license belonging to his brother, Richard Alexander “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., who was then 22. Ms. Cohen appears to look at the license and at Paul and uses a scanner to verify the validity of the license before ringing up the sale of beer, hard seltzer, gum and cigarettes for $49 on his mother’s credit card.

After Paul walks out of the store, he hoists his purchases over his head in a gesture to friends by his truck, according to the footage.

The six young people met at Paul’s grandfather’s Chechessee River house around 6:30 p.m., according to court documents. They took the boat to an oyster roast-a tradition in the South Carolina lowcountry-at another home on the water. They stayed at the party about four hours, and all were drinking while underage, according to depositions and investigative records.

On the ride home, passengers took turns holding a flashlight to maneuver the waterways because the boat didn’t have running lights. Just before 1 a.m., Paul docked the boat in downtown Beaufort, where he and fellow boat passenger Connor Cook had two rounds of liquor shots.

Crash on a Dark River

The young people spent the evening drinking including at a party and a bar along the water. GPS data show the boat accelerated rapidly and slammed into the pilings of a bridge at 2:20 a.m. Ms. Beach was thrown overboard; her body was recovered a week later.

Several passengers later testified that Paul drove the boat except for when Mr. Cook took the wheel while Paul went to the bow to confront Ms. Doughty. She told police he spit on her and slapped her, “screaming, cussing and saying horrible things,” according to court documents.

At 2:20 a.m., GPS data show the boat accelerated rapidly and slammed into the pilings by the bridge to Parris Island, which was on the route back to the Murdaugh cabin, investigative reports said. Three of the passengers were thrown into the water, including Ms. Beach, who couldn’t be found. Paul, Ms. Doughty and Mr. Cook were taken by ambulances to the hospital.

It took a week to find Ms. Beach’s body, which was facedown in the marsh 5 miles north of the bridge.

Paul’s blood drawn as part of his care at the hospital showed that his blood-alcohol level was .286, according to hospital records, three times the legal limit in South Carolina. Paul was criminally charged in April 2019, including boating under the influence causing death, but the charges were dropped after his death last June, leaving the wrongful-death suit the key legal proceeding.

Mr. Tinsley filed suit on behalf of Mallory’s mother, Renee Beach, on March 29, 2019. The defendants included Alex Murdaugh, who owned the boat; Buster Murdaugh; Randolph Murdaugh III; an elementary school assistant principal and her husband who hosted the oyster roast; the owner of the bar where Paul took shots; and Gregory M. Parker Inc., Mr. Parker’s company.

The hosts of the oyster roast, the bar owner and Randolph Murdaugh III, who died of cancer in 2021, and their insurers settled with Ms. Beach within weeks of the suit being filed. Those settlements totaled $1.7 million, according to court filings.

Alex and Buster Murdaugh remain defendants. They have both denied responsibility in Ms. Beach’s death, and have argued their assets are inadequate to pay any potential damages.

That left the Parker company, as the defendant with assets, as the focus of the lawsuit.

The wrongful-death trial could start as soon as November in the Hampton County Courthouse, where Alex Murdaugh was long a regular presence and where the walls are lined with portraits of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Quirk in liability law

Mr. Parker, 68, built his company from one gas station in rural Georgia in 1976 to a popular chain that prides itself on hand-breaded chicken fingers, clean restrooms and “Chewy Ice,” which Mr. Parker says is his own invention, born of a love of soft and crunchy ice pellets.

As Mr. Parker talked about Paul Murdaugh’s transaction, he pulled a worn printout from a stack of papers. It was an image of Alex, Maggie, Buster and Paul Murdaugh courtside at a University of South Carolina basketball game, posted on Maggie Murdaugh’s Facebook two weeks before the crash. Both brothers have red hair and fair skin.

Ms. Cohen “takes the driver’s license,” Mr. Parker said. “She looks at it. Well, guess what? They look alike.” Passengers on the boat testified in depositions that Paul frequently used his brother’s ID, including the night of the crash at the bar in Beaufort.

In court filings, Mr. Tinsley said Mr. Parker’s company shares responsibility for Ms. Beach’s death because of a companywide focus on the speed of transactions, which creates room for error in alcohol sales. Mr. Tinsley also said Ms. Cohen lacked training, failed to notice the differences in height and weight between Paul Murdaugh and the ID he used and didn’t follow other company policies.

“They’ve got great written policies,” Mr. Tinsley said. “If they did what they said they were going to do, I don’t think this happens.”

Mr. Parker said he has never reprimanded anyone over the speed they handle transactions and that Ms. Cohen was properly trained.

Ms. Cohen isn’t named as a defendant in the Beach wrongful-death suit, though she is named as a defendant in two personal-injury suits brought by other passengers. Her lawyer declined a request for an interview on her behalf.

Alcohol-enforcement authorities haven’t cited Ms. Cohen or the company in the sale, Mr. Parker said. An agent with SLED testified that she reviewed the video footage and found that Ms. Cohen “did her due diligence,” by asking for the ID and scanning it to verify its validity, according to court records. State law doesn’t require checking the height and weight on an ID in alcohol sales.

South Carolina law allows a plaintiff in an alcohol-related case to choose to collect 100% of the damages from a bar, store owner or host if a jury finds that entity the slightest amount at fault. The law, known as a joint-and-several liability law, differs from that in most other states, including Georgia, where a defendant pays a share of damages based on a percentage of fault assigned by a jury.

“You say ‘Well, wait a minute. If I’m one-millionth of 1% responsible, I can be held 100% liable?’ ” said Mr. Parker, in a recent interview. “How does that work? That’s not fair.” He is lobbying the state legislature to change the law.

The law was designed to make sure a plaintiff could collect the full amount awarded by a jury, Mr. Tinsley said, adding it originated when bars commonly operated without liquor liability insurance.

In December 2021, Mr. Tinsley filed the second suit on behalf of the Beach family against Mr. Parker personally and some of the lawyers and investigators working on his defense team, alleging civil conspiracy and outrage, or the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Mr. Tinsley alleges in the lawsuit Mr. Parker’s team planted negative information online about Ms. Beach, which Mr. Parker denies.

Mr. Tinsley said in a March court hearing that Mr. Parker’s team also hired private investigator Sara Capelli to follow Paul in the months before his death. He said at the hearing Ms. Capelli bought alcohol for a friend of one of the boat passengers when she was underage in an attempt to get information about Paul. Mr. Tinsley showed the judge a copy of a February photo taken of the young woman and Ms. Capelli at a Super Bowl party in a Columbia, S.C., bar.

Super Bowl party

Rhett Klok, Ms. Capelli’s lawyer, said Ms. Capelli had a contract to follow Paul in early 2021 with a law firm representing Mr. Parker. Mr. Klok said as part of her work, Ms. Capelli went to the private Super Bowl party, which was sponsored by Kappa Alpha Order, the college fraternity that has counted several Murdaughs as members, including Alex and Buster.

When asked whether Ms. Capelli bought alcohol for anyone underage, Mr. Klok said, “Not that she knows of.” He added, “They had electronic carding at the door. She assumed everyone was an adult.”

Mr. Parker said he can’t comment on specific allegations because he is a defendant in the case. But he said “we sure as heck wouldn’t have directed anybody to break the law,” including by buying alcohol for someone underage.

Mr. Tinsley said many of the materials sought in Mr. Parker’s investigation wouldn’t be admissible in court because footage or photos of Paul drinking excessively or underage in other settings wasn’t the cause of the boat crash. “There’s only one conclusion,” he said in an interview. Mr. Parker’s side was “collecting it to make [others] look bad in the public arena.”

A lawyer for Mr. Parker in the wrongful-death case said he expects the material to be admissible because it establishes a propensity for excessive drinking.

The suit also alleges that Mr. Parker’s team leaked law-enforcement photos of Ms. Beach’s dead body and a confidential video that was part of shared materials in the lawsuit, meant to be used only in the court proceedings, to a documentary filmmaker.

Mr. Tinsley said he created the video and shared it with Mr. Parker’s lawyers to demonstrate how he might humanize Ms. Beach to a jury. It included home movies, still photographs and interviews with family members.

The suit alleges that six snippets from the confidential video appeared last November in an online trailer for “Murdaugh Murders: Deadly Dynasty,” a documentary by Vicky Ward, who is also named as a defendant in the outrage suit.

Ms. Ward said in court filings that she came into possession of the video before contacting Mr. Tinsley to request an interview with the Beach family last September. She said in a court filing that Mr. Tinsley told her that “whoever provided the video to her violated the mediation rules” and that Mr. Tinsley gave her permission to use the video.

Mr. Tinsley denies that, and said Ms. Ward didn’t seek the family’s written approval to use their material, which he said was standard practice in documentary production.

In December, she said in a written statement to FITSNews.com, an online outlet covering the Murdaugh saga, that the trailer was for internal use at her production company and was posted in error.

Edward Fenno, Ms. Ward’s media lawyer, declined a request to interview Ms. Ward. In May, a judge denied Ms. Ward’s motion to be dismissed from the case. Mr. Fenno said she looks forward to asserting her journalistic rights to receive and publish information in further filings or at trial.

The completed “Murdaugh Murders” documentary began streaming in June on the Investigation Discovery network, a unit of Warner Bros. Discovery. The documentary didn’t include the snippets from the confidential mediation video; it did include a blurred image of Ms. Beach’s dead body and several Snapchat videos taken by the passengers on the boat that Mr. Tinsley said law enforcement provided to him and to the Parker’s legal team but haven’t made public.

Mr. Parker said a large team has been employed on his behalf by his lawyers. The team has included private investigators, investigative journalists, social-media strategists, opposition researchers and crisis managers. At least 18 lawyers have been listed in court filings as representing Mr. Parker or his company.

“We were trying to find out who and what we were up against,” Mr. Parker said.

Mr. Parker said he didn’t personally know or direct the actions of each person working on his behalf, but he didn’t authorize anyone to leak photos of Ms. Beach’s body or cause distress to the Beaches. He alleged Mr. Tinsley leaked the mediation video, which Mr. Tinsley denies.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Parker said an investigative firm digging into the Murdaughs on Mr. Parker’s behalf hired investigative journalist Gregg Roman and two private investigators, Max Fratoddi and Henry Rosado.

Mr. Roman published a 7,000-word investigation on the Murdaughs on his blog last summer; he also appeared in and co-produced Ms. Ward’s documentary. Mr. Parker’s spokeswoman said Mr. Roman’s contract ended well before the double homicide and no one affiliated with the Parker’s team authorized his blog post or participation in the documentary. Mr. Roman said his written and documentary work were independent of the research he was paid to conduct.

Mr. Fratoddi and Mr. Rosado, who are defendants in the outrage case, said in court filings that they were “engaged to gather information for news purposes” and not part of a conspiracy.

Mr. Parker said his team pieced together details about Alex Murdaugh’s family financial holdings, including allegations of questionable property exchanges and suspicions related to the deaths of Mr. Smith, the classmate of Buster Murdaugh, and Ms. Satterfield, the housekeeper, before last summer’s double homicide.

Mr. Parker said he hired people he described as investigative journalists because he was shocked at the incestuousness of the South Carolina legal system, including the scope of the Murdaugh family’s influence.

“When I look back on this [investigation], do I think ‘Oh, gosh, I wish I hadn’t have done that?’ ” Mr. Parker said. “Absolutely not. I’m proud of the work we did.”

When asked whether he conducted a stealth investigation and what specifically it entailed, Mr. Parker paused. “Here’s a better question,” he said. ” ‘So what?’ Of course I did. Anybody in my situation would have done exactly the same thing.”

As to whether it was appropriate to surveil Paul Murdaugh, the son of a co-defendant in the wrongful-death case, Mr. Parker said he wanted to get pictures of Paul drinking, “which was pretty easy to do.” He added: “This life of privilege is part of what should be examined here.”

Mr. Parker said the outrage suit is a tactic to pressure him to settle. He recently rejected an offer to settle the wrongful-death case for $25 million, according to a person familiar with the settlement talks.

The outrage suit is in limbo temporarily as the state supreme court considers a request by Mr. Parker’s team to force Mr. Tinsley to return documents the team says are covered by attorney-client privilege. Mr. Parker’s lawyers say some 5,600 documents were provided to Mr. Tinsley prematurely by Wesley Donehue, who runs the Push Digital strategy group, and the Laurens Group, a crisis-communications firm.

Mr. Donehue’s lawyer, Sandy Senn, who is also a state senator, declined an interview request on behalf of her client, who stopped working with Parker’s team in the spring of 2021. “Mr. Parker’s lawyers are aggressive, threatening and litigious,” Ms. Senn said in an email. “I hope you understand that what is best for my client is to stay away from this.case.”

Mr. Parker’s lawyers also filed a motion to force Mr. Tinsley to turn over any emails and texts exchanged with Ms. Capelli, the private investigator working for Mr. Parker. The lawyers submitted as evidence 145 text messages between Mr. Tinsley and Ms. Capelli, arguing that Mr. Tinsley violated the rules of professional conduct by engaging with Ms. Capelli.

Mr. Tinsley said he acted appropriately in his communications with members of Mr. Parker’s team, including Ms. Capelli, who he said initiated contact by sending him a Facebook friend request earlier this year. Mr. Klok, Ms. Capelli’s lawyer, said Mr. Tinsley was wrong to engage with Ms. Capelli when he knew she was represented by counsel.

Layers of connections

Some of the players in the Murdaugh morass have intertwined relationships in South Carolina’s close-knit legal community.

Mr. Tinsley, 51, is a partner at Gooding & Gooding, a three-lawyer practice in Allendale County, S.C., which is adjacent to Hampton County. He was co-counsel in a 2018 case that netted a $10.5 million settlement against a methadone clinic, where the lead counsel was Dick Harpootlian, a state senator who is now Alex Murdaugh’s lead criminal defense lawyer. Mr. Harpootlian is also a Democratic power broker; his wife, Jamie, is President Biden’s ambassador to Slovenia.

Mr. Tinsley has frequently worked alongside the Murdaugh family firm, which changed its name last January to the Parker Law Group-unrelated to Mr. Parker-including with a lawyer from the firm in a record-setting $30 million jury award against Ford Motor Co.

Mr. Parker’s team includes some of the state’s best-known lawyers, including Murrell Smith, the speaker of the state House of Representatives, and Deborah Barbier, a former federal prosecutor who briefly co-led former President Donald Trump’s defense team on his second impeachment. She was also a sorority sister of Maggie Murdaugh at the University of South Carolina and classmate of Alex Murdaugh at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

Mr. Parker’s company is also separately being sued by the surviving boat passengers: Ms. Doughty, whose hand was injured; Mr. Cook, whose jaw was broken; Miley Altman, Mr. Cook’s girlfriend; and Anthony Cook, Ms. Beach’s boyfriend and Mr. Cook’s cousin. Each said they suffered physical and emotional harm as a result of the crash and the death of Ms. Beach.

In a preview of Mr. Parker’s defense in the wrongful-death suit, his lead trial lawyer, Pankaj “P.K.” Shere of Raleigh, N.C., said he anticipates asking jurors to apply common sense and consider whether a two-minute transaction at Parker’s nine hours before the crash was the fundamental reason for Ms. Beach’s death. He will also ask them to consider whether the six-pack of Michelob Ultra Lime light beer, 15-pack of Natural Light beer and 12-pack of White Claw hard seltzer Paul Murdaugh purchased was sufficient to make him so grossly intoxicated, even if he drank it all himself, which he didn’t, according to depositions.

Mr. Parker said his defense will also assert that the young people on the boat could have done more than he or his employees to prevent the crash, including physically blocking Paul Murdaugh from driving.

Mr. Parker said he is particularly galled by Connor Cook’s lawsuit. “He said I’m responsible for the accident? He was buying him glass-fulls of Jägermeister [at the bar] before the incident, and I’m responsible?”

Joe McCulloch, Mr. Cook’s lawyer, said Mr. Cook and the other passengers said in witness statements and depositions that they tried to persuade Paul not to drive. But he said it is unrealistic to say Mr. Cook or any of the passengers should have wrestled the wheel from an erratic Paul Murdaugh, who had stripped down to his boxers and was gesticulating wildly, according to depositions. “Mutiny on the Bounty wouldn’t have ended well for anybody,” Mr. McCulloch said.

South Carolina law has strict liability for the sale of alcohol to someone underage, meaning a person is responsible even if they didn’t know what they did was wrong, Mr. McCulloch said. “Very few defendants in tragedies of this type are willing to accept responsibility,” Mr. McCulloch said. “His willingness to point the finger isn’t surprising.”

Mr. Parker said he has aggressive growth plans to double the number of Parker’s Kitchen stores over the next four years, with much of that growth in South Carolina, which is part of the reason he is lobbying legislators to change the joint-and-several liability law in alcohol-related cases.

He said he was dropped by his longtime insurer after the boat crash and went 10 months without insurance before finding a carrier, which offered him less coverage and charged a higher price.

Tom Mullikin, a lawyer who is leading Mr. Parker’s South Carolina Coalition for Lawsuit Reform, said he knows he faces an uphill climb. He said the South Carolina trade associations for restaurants and convenience stores have expressed support but not yet joined the effort to change the law.

The president of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association said in an email the association generally supported changes to tort law and was “looking into how the association would fit in” with the coalition’s work. The South Carolina Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association didn’t respond to requests for comment.

A bill Mr. Parker backed in the legislative session that ended in June didn’t get a hearing at the judiciary subcommittee level. In the legislature, 54 of 170 members are lawyers, and a disproportionate number are trial lawyers who oppose changing the law, according to Mr. Mullikin.

State Sen. Luke Rankin, the chair of the judiciary committee and a personal-injury lawyer, said he doesn’t anticipate significant movement on the bill, saying it doesn’t benefit the public.