After a weeklong trial, an Horry County jury has awarded nearly $21 million to the estate of a Maryland man who drowned in front of his family while vacationing at a Myrtle Beach resort.
An attorney for the estate, J. Christopher Pracht of Thomason & Pracht in Anderson, said that Zerihun Wolde, his fiancee, Meswaet Abel, and their four children headed to the beach near the Sea Crest Resort on Aug. 24, 2018. According to court documents, Abel and the couple’s twins stayed on the beach building sand castles while Wolde and his two older children entered the ocean. Wolde and the children were caught in rip currents and as Wolde struggled to save his children, he made cries for help that were never answered.
Beachgoers were able to help safely return the children to shore, the complaint states, but Wolde drowned before he could be rescued.
Pracht said that defendant Lack’s Beach Service was required to provide properly trained, certified, competent lifeguards for the portion of the beach where Wolde drowned. But as a result of a “dual role,” the United States Lifesaving Association stripped Lack’s of its certification more than a decade ago, Pracht said.
“Lack’s requires its lifeguards to rent beach umbrellas and chairs at the same time they are tasked with public safety and water observation,” Pracht wrote in an email to Lawyers Weekly. The (USLA) prohibits lifeguards from being tasked with anything other than public safety.”
Pracht said that a former USLA president testified that Lack’s “bamboozled” the USLA for several years by representing that he would deploy a core of lifeguards whose sole purpose was public safety. He said that Lack’s was warned repeatedly about the unsafe nature of “dual role” lifeguarding and that he believes Myrtle Beach is the only city in the country to employ the practice.
“Testimony and evidence indicated that while Mr. Wolde and his two children were struggling and calling for help, the lifeguards assigned to monitor the beach were engaged in commercial sales,” Pracht wrote. “Further, no lifeguards made any attempt to enter the water and save Mr. Wolde or his children.”
Pracht said that the jury deliberated for a total of four hours before awarding $13.73 million in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages.
“We spoke to several jurors that stopped and wanted to give our client a hug,” Pracht said. “The refrain from the jury was that our client Meswaet Abel was an amazing, strong woman. Absolute truth.”
The plaintiff was also represented by Mullins McLeod and Cooper Wilson of The McLeod Law Group in Columbia and Charleston. Wilson said that after hearing all the evidence, the jury’s verdict speaks for itself.
“We are honored to be able to represent this family through years of litigation and through this weeklong trial,” Wilson said.
Pracht said that the City of Myrtle Beach was released as a defendant on their motion for summary judgment, a ruling that he anticipates appealing.
Joseph “Trey” Thompson III of Hall Booth Smith in Charleston represented Lack’s Beach Service and Kelli Sullivan and Gerald Chambers of Turner Padget in Columbia represented the City of Myrtle Beach. None of the attorneys immediately responded to a request for comment.
SETTLEMENT REPORT — WRONGFUL DEATH
Amount: $20.73 million
Injuries alleged: Death
Case name: Meswaet Abel as Personal Representative over the Estate of Zerihun Wolde v. Lack’s Beach Service et al.
Court: Horry County Circuit Court
Case No.: 2019-CP-26-07075
Judge: Kristi Curtis
Date of verdict: July 29
Attorneys for plaintiff: J. Christopher Pracht of Thomason & Pracht in Anderson and Mullins McLeod and Cooper Wilson of The McLeod Law Group in Columbia and Charleston
Attorneys for defendant: Joseph “Trey” Thompson III of Hall Booth Smith in Charleston represented Lack’s Beach Service and Kelli Sullivan and Gerald Chambers of Turner Padget in Columbia represented the City of Myrtle Beach