Myrtle Beach allows rental gear in exchange for lifeguards. Lawsuits may force a change.

JASON LEE/jlee@thesunnews
·3 min read

More wrongful death suits are likely coming against a company that contracts with Myrtle Beach to provide lifeguards in exchange for the ability to profit from chair and umbrella sales on the beach.

It’s a move to try and end the practice known as “dual role” lifeguarding system in America’s only city that uses it, an attorney involved in the proceedings told The Sun News.

The City of Myrtle Beach is also an expected target, given its relationship with Lack’s Beach Service, despite evidence that its dual mode lifeguarding model is fatally flawed, said Chris Pracht, an attorney involved in the legal offensive.

Dual role lifeguarding is system that allows for-profit companies to make money from equipment rentals in exchange for providing trained rescuers to watch the water.

Lack’s Beach Service declined to comment for this story.

Pracht is part of a team that last week secured a $20.7 million judgment against Lack’s Beach Service for the family of 41-year-old Zerihun Wolde, a cab driver from Silver Spring, Maryland who drowned on the second day of a 2018 vacation along a strip of beach in Lack’s jurisdiction.

“We’ve already signed up one case from July of 2021 and we’ve been in contact with other families that reached out to us since the verdict, so we intend to bring lawsuits on this conduct in the future,” Pracht said.

Myrtle Beach spokesman Mark Kruea said severing ties with Lack’s Beach Service can only be done through a City Council vote.

Mayor Brenda Bethune said on Aug. 3 that she was unaware of any immediate plans to talk about the franchise agreement, which runs through 2025.

A jury ruled Lack’s Beach Service was directly responsible for Wolde’s death because of the overlapping duties of its staff as both first responders and merchants.

“I hope the message that it (the verdict) sends is that you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Both the city and Lack’s have been effective over the past decade on pulling the wool over the eyes of the City Council and the public of Myrtle Beach,” Pracht said.

Myrtle Beach contracts with Lack’s and John’s Beach Service to provide lifeguards on its beaches in exchange for the ability to conduct rental sales. Those franchise agreements, which expire respectively in 2025 and 2024, lay out conditions including staffing levels based on season and a requirement that hired lifeguards undergo training and field tests before they can observe the water.

Myrtle Beach was a co-defendant in the case from 2019 when Mesawaet Abel, Wolde’s fiance, filed her wrongful death suit until just a few days before the trial’s July 25 start when 15th Circuit Court Magistrate Judge Kristi Curtis dismissed the city under the state’s Tort Claims Act that limits when local governments can be sued.

Pracht said attorneys plan to appeal Curtis’s decision, hoping to bring the city to court in the Wolde suit.