A South Carolina judge on Tuesday reversed a key decision he made removing disbarred lawyer Alex Murdaugh and his family members from the Mallory Beach boat death lawsuit.
Judge Dan Hall ruled that the trial over who’s to blame and how much damages should be paid out in Beach’s 2019 death will begin Jan. 9 in Hampton County with all defendants — the Murdaughs and convenience store magnate Greg Parker — joined together.
The reversal, sought by Beach family lawyer Mark Tinsley, potentially means a bigger jury verdict against Parker if damages are awarded. It also means the Beach family only has to endure one, not two, emotion-charged trial about their 19-year-old daughter’s untimely death in a waterway off Beaufort.
Beach was one of six young people in a boat allegedly owned by Alex Murdaugh and piloted by his late son Paul that crashed into a bridge piling off Parris Island in February 2019. All had been drinking at the time.
Beach was thrown from the boat and drowned.
Parker and his lawyers had tried for weeks to separate their trial from that of the Murdaughs, arguing that the negative publicity surrounding the family and alleged criminal acts by the father including murder would prejudice a jury’s findings against Parker.
At first, the judge agreed with Parker, saying he would allow Parker to have a separate trial because of the notoriety of the Murdaugh name.
“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 ... allegations against Parker’s in this case,” the judge wrote in a Sept. 13 order.
If ever a case deserved to have defendants severed, “this is it, based on the facts and circumstances involving the parties in this matter,” the judge wrote.
But Tinsley filed a motion asked the judge to reconsider, and the judge agreed.
At a hearing last week in Hampton County, Tinsley told the judge his decision to sever the defendants went against 200 years of well-settled South Carolina law.
In cases like the Beach boat crash case, joint defendants cannot be separated out by a judge’s action, Tinsley said. Numerous legal precedents have held that plaintiffs — and not a judge — determine who the defendants will be in a civil case where multiple defendants bear a share of the liability, Tinsley said.
Pankaj “PK” Shere, who represents Parker’s, told the judge while state Supreme Court precedents may pertain to who gets sued initially, the judge has the right to determine as the case progresses whether a defendant can be separated out and have their own trial.
The crimes Murdaugh is accused of are so numerous, and so dastardly, that they have created an international “media circus” that will prevent Parker from getting a fair trial if he is lumped in with the Murdaughs at a trial, Shere said.
Moreover, none of the Murdaugh criminal allegations have a thing to do with Parker, or any allegations in the Beach case, Shere said.
The reason Tinsley wants the Murdaughs to be tried jointly with Parker is so “the jury gets inflamed ... and that’s going to influence them,” said Shere, who after Tuesday’s hearing said Tinsley regards Parker as a “deep pocket.”
Parker is a defendant because a clerk at one of his stores is alleged to have unlawfully sold an underage Paul a load of beer on Feb. 23 2019. Although the fatal crash took place hours later, the Beach’s lawsuit alleges that it was the beginning of a chain of actions, including getting more alcohol from other sources, that resulted in their daughter’s death.
Murdaugh is a defendant because he and his late wife Maggie encouraged Paul’s drinking, even though the teen was known to drink to excess, the lawsuit said. Maggie’s estate is a defendant in the case, as is Paul’s estate.
Both Maggie and Paul were shot to death in June 2021. Murdaugh has been charged with their murders.
Buster Murdaugh, Paul’s older brother, is also a defendant in the case. He is alleged to have regularly let Paul use his driver’s license to buy beer.
“The Beach family is very pleased and relieved with the Court’s decision today,” Tinsley said Tuesday. “We are looking forward to trying the case in January.”
Shere said, “We are obviously disappointed that Judge Hall has reversed his decision. We are looking into options, but, ultimately, we look forward to presenting our case at trial and exonerating Tajeeha Cohen and Parker’s.”
Cohen was the clerk at Parker’s store who sold the beer to Paul.
She is not named as a defendant in the case, but she is expected to testify at any trial.
The Jan. 9 trial date set by Hall poses a potential conflict with an effort to hold Murdaugh’s murder trial at about the same time in Colleton County.
Murdaugh’s lawyers in the murder trial could not be reached.