Circuit court Judge Daniel D. Hall reversed his own previous order and ruled Tuesday that disbarred and accused attorney Richard "Alex" Murdaugh and the Parker's codefendants in the Mallory Beach wrongful-death lawsuit will be tried together beginning Jan. 9, 2023.
It is a trial three years in the making and may signal the beginning of some closure for grieving families in the Hampton County community and around the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Renee Beach, the mother of the late Mallory Beach, filed the suit on behalf of Mallory's estate in March 2019, a month after her 19-year-old daughter from Hampton County was killed in a boat crash in Beaufort County while a passenger in Murdaugh's boat, allegedly piloted by his son Paul.
Among those named as defendants in the suit are Alex Murdaugh, Parker's Corporation, which operates convenience stores, and Gregory Parker, the owner of Parker's Corporation.
Also named as defendants are Murdaugh's son Richard "Buster" Murdaugh Jr., who allegedly loaned his ID to his minor brother, and the estates of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. Paul has been accused of purchasing alcohol at a Parker's store before the boat crash even though he was underage.
What does the ruling say, and why did the judge change course?
Judge Hall's brief, one paragraph order was electronically filed on Sept. 27 in Hampton County Court of Common Pleas. The order reads:
"Upon further review of South Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, applicable case law, briefs of parties and oral arguments, Plaintiff’s Motion for Reconsideration is GRANTED and the September 13, 2022 Order of this Court Granting Plaintiff’s Motion to Sever is REVERSED. This civil case is set for day certain trial on Monday, January 9, 2023 in Hampton County with the inclusion of all named Defendants."
Reactions to the ruling
The Beach family considered the ruling a relief. Part of their legal argument for trying the defendants together was that two separate trials would bring undue emotional and financial stress.
"The Beach family is very pleased and relieved with the Court's decision today," said Allendale attorney Mark Tinsley, who represented them and the Estate of Mallory Beach. "We look forward to trying the case in January."
“We are obviously disappointed that Judge Hall has reversed his decision," said PK Shere, attorney for Parker's. "We are looking into options, but, ultimately, we look forward to presenting our case at trial and exonerating Tajeeha Cohen [the story employee accused of selling the alcohol] and Parker’s.”
Judge hears arguments on motion to reconsider
After previously granting a motion to sever the primary defendants in the case, meaning the cases against the defendants would be held separately, Judge Hall of York County's 16th Judicial Circuit heard a motion to reconsider from the Beach plaintiffs in Hampton County Court of Common Pleas on Sept. 23.
Hall heard arguments from a legal team led by Tinsley, attorney for Renee Beach, as personal representative for the estate of Mallory Beach, and a team led by P.K. Shere, representing Parker and Parker's Corporation, who are accused of selling alcohol to the underaged boaters who were involved in the crash. But the judge deferred a decision until no later than end of day Sept. 27.
At issue in this motion were legal precedent, fairness to the defendants and the perception that one defendant, Parker's, might have a higher ability to pay damages than Murdaugh, whose assets are tied up in the face of multiple lawsuits.
Murdaugh, a former personal-injury lawyer and volunteer assistant solicitor with the 14th Judicial Circuit, is facing more than 90 financial and drug charges as well as two murder charges in the June 2021 shootings of his wife, Maggie, and son Paul after an alleged decade-long, multi-county crime spree.
Mallory Beach case to advance with decision on separating Murdaugh and Parker's defendants
Shere has argued for separating the Parker's defendants from Murdaugh in the case of Mallory Beach.
“Joint and severed liability shouldn’t be about the deepest pockets but about holding the responsible parties accountable," said Shere, later adding, "We have the right to defend ourselves free and clear of this (Murdaugh) media circus."
Tinsley has argued in favor of leaving the defendants to be part of one case.
“The Court should not find that the 'notoriety' surrounding the Murdaugh Defendants creates prejudice to Parker’s that supports severance of the claims,” Tinsley wrote in a recent motion. “That Parker’s is ‘tethered’ to the Murdaughs is a situation of their own making by illegally selling alcohol to an underage Paul Murdaugh. Parker’s has no one to blame but itself for the situation in which it finds itself."
Murdaugh, jailed on a $7 million bond on more than 90 criminal charges, has his assets under the control of court-appointed receivers as he is also facing 10 other lawsuits after being accused of stealing more than $8.5 million from legal clients and fellow attorneys over the past decade.
What got us here? Tragic death of Mallory Beach leads to multimillion-dollar lawsuit
Mallory Beach died after an allegedly alcohol-fueled boat crash in February 2019 that made headlines around the state before the Murdaugh family was propelled into the international spotlight when Murdaugh's alleged crimes were made public and his wife, Maggie, and Paul were shot and killed.
Beach's original wrongful-death civil case named a couple who hosted an oyster roast that included the underage boaters; Alex Murdaugh's late father, former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, who allegedly allowed underage drinking at his waterfront property; and a Beaufort bar and grill that allegedly also served alcohol to the minors.
All three of those defendants were later dismissed from the case after reaching separate settlement agreements, said Tinsley.
On Aug. 19, attorneys for the Parker's defendants filed the motion to sever themselves from the Murdaugh defendants so that each set of defendants would receive a separate trial, citing in part delays with Murdaugh’s defense as well as ongoing international media coverage surrounding Alex Murdaugh.
On Sept. 12, Hall approved the motion to sever, stating in his order that “the Court is well aware of the local, regional, national, and international interest and focus of the Murdaugh family…” and adding that, “The recent criminal indictments and civil lawsuits surrounding the Murdaugh family involve potentially the most reactionary and publicized proceedings in the history of the South Carolina judiciary and legal system, none of which is due to any conduct of Parker’s and have nothing to do with Plaintiff’s allegations against Parker’s in this case.”
In his order, Hall also stated he was granting Parker’s motion “to prevent delay, embarrassment, additional expense, and the prejudice it will suffer if not severed away from the Murdaugh defendants.”
Hall then set a trial date for Jan. 9, 2023, for just the Beach-Parker's case.
No trail date was set at that point for the Beach-Murdaugh case.
But the issue of severance wasn’t over.
Mark Tinsley says severance order is unfair to the Beach family, as he cited Supreme Court
On Sept. 12, Tinsley filed a motion to reconsider Hall's order, claiming that severed trials denied his clients' rights to an adequate jury trial and could cause them undue emotional stress and additional expense. He added that a recovery against one set of defendants could impair fair recovery against the other.
“The only way the Beach family will get their right to have a jury determine all the issues, including damages, in a jury trial against the Murdaugh Defendants is a joint trial with all parties," the motion states.
During his arguments Friday, Tinsley cited multiple South Carolina Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court decisions, going back more than 200 years, that he said all confirm the fundamental "absolute sole right" of the plaintiff, not the defendants, to name who they wish to sue, how they wish to sue and be "the master of their complaint."
"The Beach family gets to decide who we bring before a judge," Tinsley argued. "The (Supreme) Court recognizes that you can not separate... you can't prevent the plaintiffs from being the architect of their own complaint."
Tinsley also argued that while the time and expense of two separate trials would drag on, Murdaugh's assets would be "wasted." He cited recent attorneys fees from lawyers for the estates of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh for a combined $190,000, which would be paid from assets that could go to Murdaugh's alleged victims instead.
P.K. Shere says trying Parker's defendants with Alex Murdaugh would be unfair, prejudicial
During his counterarguments, Shere, lead attorney for Parker's, took several of the Supreme Court cases that Tinsley referenced and attacked them, saying that they did not apply to this case.
He also cited South Carolina Rules 20 and 42, which deal with multiple defendants.
Shere did not introduce case examples of his own but instead read verbatim from Hall's ruling to sever, adding that he thought the judge's previous ruling was "appropriate" and "very reasonable and well thought out" and that nothing in this case had changed since the judge filed that order.
"This court found that Parker's would undoubtedly be prejudiced... under these extraordinary circumstances," he said, adding that there is a likelihood a jury would be upset with the alleged "bad actions" of the Murdaugh defendants and that could influence damages that Parker's would have to pay.
Shere also called the Murdaugh crime saga a "media circus" while pointing at the television cameras in the room, and he added that Murdaugh has even been accused in the press of "tampering with the very boat crash in question."
Shere further claimed that Parker's was "defrauded" by Paul Murdaugh when he allegedly used his brother's ID to purchase alcohol while underage, and Shere added that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division found no criminal wrongdoing on the part of the Parker's employee who allegedly sold the beer, not issuing a citation to the store.
"Contrary to what Mr. Tinsley represents, the only reason he wants one trial is to tether the bad actions of the Murdaugh Defendants to Parker’s, inflame the jury, hope Parker’s gets swept up into the Murdaugh drama and, ultimately, have Parker’s pay for the actions of the Murdaugh Defendants," Shere countered. "The reality is that Mr. Tinsley fears a separate trial with just Parker’s because a jury may agree with SLED that this was a valid legal transaction and, therefore, no negligence...”
What is next for Murdaugh's civil and criminal cases?
Judge Hall's decision for a Jan. 9 trial may impact a high-profile criminal case involving Murdaugh.
Power, prestige and privilege: Inside the rise and fall of the Murdaugh dynasty in South Carolina
Murders, mystery, money: Here's a timeline of the Murdaugh family killings
Murdaugh was indicted July 14 for the June 2021 murders of his wife, Maggie, and son Paul.
Murdaugh's criminal defense team, which includes attorneys Richard Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, has filed a request with the SC Court Administration for an early January 2023 trial date on the murder and weapons charges Murdaugh faces in the shooting deaths of his family members.
Faced with defending two trials in one month, attorneys - or even the court system - may choose to delay the murder trial.
However, when contacted Tuesday, Harpootlian declined to comment on the ruling, or on whether his team would consider an alternate trial date.
Murdaugh, jailed in Richland County on a $7 million bond, is also facing more than 90 financial and drug crime charges. Trial dates have not been set on those alleged crimes, either.
This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Mallory Beach case: Judge rules both Murdaugh, Parker's tried Jan. 9