“How can you not know,” family of custodial worker found dead on job announce lawsuit against Belk

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 7:02 AM EDT|Updated: Sep. 19, 2023 at 10:54 AM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The family of a woman found dead in the bathroom of a Belk in Columbia announced they have filed a lawsuit against the department store.

Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023, marks one year since the body of a custodial worker was found in a Belk Department store bathroom.

On Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, 63-year-old Bessie Durham was found dead inside a public restroom at the Belk department store in Columbiana Centre off Harbison Boulevard.

Attorneys for Durham’s family said for four days Belk continued collecting revenue, making sales, and going about business as usual all while the beloved mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother lay dead in the bathroom.

“As she laid in this bathroom for four days nobody looked for her. Despite the fact that her cart, this is not a basket, but a cart, was outside of the bathroom, while employees, customers, managers walked past it,” said Attorney Seth Rose.

Surveillance footage showed her entering the bathroom on the morning of Sept. 15, 2022, but she was not seen exiting.

Durham, who worked as a custodian, was found four days later slumped over on the bathroom floor by a co-worker.

Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher released the autopsy results and revealed Durham died of natural causes.

Durham’s family alongside local attorneys announced they filed a lawsuit against Belk, Inc. on Tuesday, Sept. 19.

In a press release announcing the lawsuit, the family said: “We could smell her body inside the casket at the funeral.”

“The odor,” described Sheneki Jeter, Durham’s daughter.

“I never smelled a decomposing body before in my life, but that smell. I won’t forget. At the funeral of course we sat in the front as the family, her children, and the odor was horrible. Every time I smelled it, I felt sick to my stomach. It was horrible,” she added.

The lawsuit mentioned the body’s state of decomposition, alleging Belk robbed the Durham family of a peaceful and proper burial.

My mother was a hard worker, and she didn’t deserve this,” said Durham’s daughter Sylvia Smith.

Also, the lawsuit alleges Belk failed to inspect the restrooms and failed to properly hire contractors to inspect and clean the restroom and then failed to supervise the contractors to ensure the cleaning and inspections were done properly.

According to the lawsuit Belk created inherent dangerous conditions with a new policy to lock bathroom doors following a shooting at the mall.

“This is an incredibly tragic situation that should never have happened,” said Chris Hart, the lead attorney on the case. “Our client’s loved one was a loyal and dedicated worker and Belk’s gross negligence has etched the most indelible horror on the family.”

“That policy entrapped Bessie Durham inside of that bathroom,” Attorney Chris Hart.

In the lawsuit, Belk and several employees are listed as well as the amount of 75 hundred dollars for damages and attorney fees.

“We hope that this lawsuit serves as a wake-up call to Belk and other corporations, that they have a moral and legal obligation to treat workers and their families with dignity and respect,” Attorney Hart said.

Attorney Hart says they also plan on filing a lawsuit against Durham’s contracting company KBS at a later time.

WIS did reach out to Belk for comment and has not heard back.

If successful, the family plans to use the money from the lawsuit to start a scholarship fund for girls looking to attend a trade school.

“I really do miss her she was always fun to be around,” said Durham’s daughter Sheneki Jeter.

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