Drunken boater, slow Richland County emergency response caused teen’s death, suit says

Joshua Boucher/jboucher@thestate.com
·4 min read

A lawsuit filed in Richland County court by the mother of a teenager killed in a boating incident claims that paramedics got lost, Department of Natural Resources police never showed up at the scene, and a sheriff’s deputy did an inadequate investigation among other allegations that all played a part in her son’s death.

Sabria Phillips of Kershaw County claims in the suit that Richland County Emergency Medical Service, the county’s 911 communication center and Richland County Sheriff’s Department were slow and ill-equipped to respond when her son, 19-year-old Jaden Phillips, suffered a head injury in a boating crash on the Congaree River on May 16, 2020.

The suit was filed May 13, 2022.

In addition to Richland County government and its EMS, dispatchers and sheriff’s office, the Phillips family is suing Richland County Deputy Daniel Brigman and Richland County paramedics Terra Randall and Blakely Meadors.

Irvine Eckrote, a friend of Jaden at the time, was drunkenly driving the boat when it crashed, according to the suit. Eckrote is also being sued.

The Department of Natural Resources, which is legally required to investigate crimes on waterways, never showed up after 911 was called about the crash and Jaden Phillips’ injury, the suit says. The natural resources department is also being sued.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department said it “will not comment on pending litigation.”

The State reached out to the other government agencies and Eckrote’s attorney but did not hear back by Saturday at midday.

“It was just a terrible accident,” Eckrote’s attorney, Randolph Hough, told The Post and Courier.

The Phillips family is asking for an unspecified amount of money for costs dealing with Jaden’s death and as punishment for those being sued.

Attorneys Todd Rutherford of The Rutherford Law Firm and Breon C. M. Walker of The Stanley Law Group are representing the Phillips family.

May 16, 2020: the day of the crash

On the day of the accident, Eckrote and Jaden Phillips were hanging out on a sandbar in the Congaree River where Eckrote was drinking alcohol, the suit claims.

They got into a boat that Eckrote drove at “a high rate of speed,” according to the suit. Eckrote crashed the boat causing a serious head injury to Phillips.

Phillips was “bleeding profusely from the back of his head” and was “gurgling” for air in a boat littered with beer cans, vomit and what appeared to urine, the suit says.

Eckrote never called 911 after the wreck, but drove the boat to Bates Bridge Landing, according to the suit.

Bates Bridge Landing accesses the Congaree River under U.S. Highway 601 near Richland County’s southern border with Calhoun County.

There, an off-duty paramedic happened upon Eckrote and Phillips and saw the “dire condition” he was in and began giving medical aid, the suit says. Bystanders called 911. Those calls were “volleyed” among call centers in Calhoun, Lexington and Richland counties.

“County 911 operators were confused as to where the Bates Bridge Landing was located, and which jurisdiction controlled the Bates Bridge Landing due to improper (or) lack of proper property addressing,” the suit says.

Some 911 calls went to the dispatch center of the Department of Natural Resources, according to the suit. But DNR officers never arrived.

“After an extended period,” Deputy Brigman of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department showed up in response to a report of a head injury and “an intoxicated subject.”

The suit alleges that Brigman didn’t assess Phillips, didn’t secure the scene, and didn’t contact the natural resources department. Brigman didn’t give a sobriety test to Eckrote at the time, the suit says, but nine days later wrote in a report that “offender suspected of using alcohol” and “alcohol reported present on the boat.”

Randall and Meadors, the Richland County paramedics, “finally arrived after getting lost and being unable to locate Bates Bridge Landing,” according to the suit.

The paramedics were “ill-equipped and understaffed to attend to Jaden Phillips’ injuries” and required bystanders to help treat him, the suit says.

The paramedics asked Brigman to drive the ambulance so they could continue treating Phillips, but Brigman was untrained or refused to operate the ambulance, causing further delay, the suit claims.

Phillips was taken to Prisma Richland hospital where he died four days later.

Aftermath

In the wake of Jaden’s death, the Phillips family endured “great mental anguish, anxiety and suffering and have suffered indescribable grief, shock, and sorrow,” the suit says.

The suit claims the defendants were negligent, reckless or careless and caused the wrongful death of Jaden.

The suit also alleges that Richland County, its EMS, dispatchers and the deputy who responded to the incident were under prepared, inadequately trained and “unfit, unqualified and incompetent.” The suit makes the same claim against the Department of Natural Resources, which is said to have never sent officers despite receiving emergency calls.

The Phillips family has asked for a jury trial.

Eckrote was criminally charged with boating under the influence and negligent operation of a water craft, according to court records. Those charges are pending and set for a jury trial.