Will the Murdaugh case change anything?
Updated: Apr 16
This is my third post related to the trial of my law school classmate Alex Murdaugh. My first two posts are available below. My first post has exceeded 1,000 views!
The way Judge Newman handled the Murdaugh trial was markedly different from my experience as a young lawyer in that judicial district many years ago.
When asked what I thought would happen when the case went to the jury, I told others that I thought it would to be a hung jury. I have represented clients in cases brought by Murdaugh's firm in that judicial district. His firm rarely lost. The tentacles ran deep throughout the counties of that district.
South Carolina's Fourteenth Judicial District includes five counties: Allendale, Jasper, Beaufort, Colleton, and Hampton. Other than perhaps the coastal town of Beaufort in Beaufort County, these are very rural areas. Most are included in the "Corridor of Shame" along Interstate 95 where educational facilities and resources are wholly inadequate and underfunded for the minority populations.
The Murdaugh's Moselle property was in Colleton County, and parts of it were in Hampton County. The trial was in the small town of Walterboro in Colleton County. The Murdaugh law firm was in adjacent Hampton County.
In South Carolina, our state "solicitors," or elected state criminal prosecutors, have jurisdiction over the entire district, in this case five counties.
In 2002, Forbes published an article on Hampton County called "Home Court Advantage." It is an incredibly accurate description of Hampton County back then. Not much has changed in over 20 years.
At that time, state laws allowed South Carolinians to bring a lawsuit in any county where a company "transacted business." That resulted in thousands of lawsuits being brought in Hampton County by folks who did not live in Hampton County for an injury that did not occur in Hampton County against a company that did not have a headquarters or office in Hampton County. The litigants knew they had a much greater chance of a significant monetary recovery in Hampton County, especially if represented by the Murdaugh law firm.
For example, as long as anyone sold Continental tires in Hampton County, plaintiffs could sue that company in Hampton County. The Forbes article discusses how Wal-Mart decided not to build a store in Hampton County in light of its litigious nature. Transacting business in Hampton County would have rendered Wal-Mart subject to lawsuit there. Instead, like many corporations, they chose not to locate there. Decision like that only further depressed the impoverished region.
As a young lawyer, I defended cases brought by Murdaugh's now-defunct law firm in the Hampton County Courthouse. There, portraits of Alex’s father and grandfather, both previous solicitors, hung on the walls. Corporate defense attorneys knew our clients like the railroad and auto manufacturers better come to Hampton County with a big check. For a corporate defense attorney, going into that judicial circuit was central casting for a "home cookin'" movie. Hampton County was known nationally as a "judicial hellhole."
The Murdaugh family has a long history with the railroads. On a Friday night in 1940, Alex's great grandfather Randolf Murdaugh, Sr., was killed in a railroad crossing accident. He was also a lawyer, the solicitor, and a graduate of the University of South Carolina School of Law. The Murdaughs sued the railroad for his wrongful death.
For years, Alex Murdaugh's firm made millions of dollars suing the railroad. A fascinating article entitled "Trouble with Trains: The crash -- and the Lawsuit -- that helped launch the Murdaugh Dynasty" in the Greenville News discusses the "tangled web" of lawyers and judges throughout the history of that jurisdiction.
I represented CSX in a case brought by the Murdaugh firm in the late 1990s. The resident judge called the parties to the court for a “status conference.” He directed that I bring my client.
I told Jimmy, my in-house adjuster client, that he needed to be prepared for a tongue lashing by the judge based on claims that our settlement offer had been unreasonable. Jimmy told me he was ready. He had been before this judge in Hampton County in previous railroad cases.
When we arrived at the courthouse, the local attorneys were in the back of the courtroom in the judge’s chambers laughing and joking. The judge had his feet up on his desk. I had a pending motion to dismiss the case.
The judge welcomed me to Hampton County.
“Welcome back, Mr. Fava. I remember you. You're the city slicker from the big Charleston law firm,” he said. They all laughed. He told my adjuster it was great to see him, too. "Jimmy, I hope you brought yo' checkbook," he said.
The judge said he called the parties together because he was really hoping to get this case resolved. He stated that he saw no need to go on the record with the court reporter because he was going to deny my motion to dismiss anyway.
We did not resolve the case that day in the judge’s chambers. The judge denied my motion. “Counselor, you are paid by the hour, and these fellas here are not, so why don’t you prepare and send me a draft order denying your motion,” the judge said to me.
That was irritating because usually the prevailing party drafted the proposed order for the judge, not the loser.
Before we left, the judge asked my adjuster if he could get "some mo' of those ole railroad ties" that were being replaced in Hampton County. He knew the railroad was “just going to throw them away.” They would be put to great use on his property.
Thankfully by 2005, our state Supreme Court changed our venue laws governing where a lawsuit could be brought. That occurred after a Hampton County jury awarded a CSX train conductor $1 million after he alleged the heat in the locomotives over the years had injured him. There was little medical evidence to support this claim that he made right before he was to retire, but they jury bought it.
In that landmark case, the conductor didn't reside in Hampton County nor did CSX. The alleged injury did not occur on railroad tracks in Hampton County. But, because CSX trains ran through Hampton County, CSX was subject to suit there. The Court and the state legislature finally changed the venue law by requiring a corporate defendant to have a physical presence in a county or for the accident to have occurred in the county.
In other words, there needed to be some connection to the injury, the plaintiff, or the defendant to the county where the plaintiff brought the lawsuit. That put an end to "forum shopping" for Hampton County.
I practiced in Hampton County as a young associate 25 years ago.
Fast forward 25 years. Judge Newman was not a "good ole boy judge" as he presided over the case in the Fourteenth Judicial District. Our state Supreme Court Chief Justice specifically assigned Judge Newman to handle all the Murdaugh cases in Colleton County.
Even with the verdicts, there remain many questions related to the financial crimes. For example, our state law requires in wrongful death settlements that the "court shall schedule a hearing and receive into evidence those facts that the court considers necessary and proper to evaluate the settlement." After "conducting this inquiry," the court is to issue an order approving or disapproving the settlement.
I know in every wrongful death settlement in which I was involved, the judge had all parties and lawyers in the courtroom for a confirmation hearing on the record.
At that hearing, the plaintiff's attorney reviewed the settlement amounts to the penny, including all disbursements and the total amount the plaintiff would receive.
The judge would ask the deceased's beneficiary if they understood and agreed with the settlement and the monetary disbursement.
The judge would ask if the surviving family member was satisfied with their lawyer's performance and understood and agreed with the fee agreement (typically 30 - 40%).
The judge would ask the plaintiff if they knew that settling the matter would end it forever, and bar them forevermore from seeking more money anytime in the future.
Finally, the judge would confirm with the plaintiff that it was their desire that the judge approve the settlement as outlined in the court.
The Fourteenth Judicial District is still not where I would want to be as a corporate defendant. It remains to be seen what impact the conviction of Alex will have on future criminal and civil cases there. For sure, the trial put an end to the Murdaugh multi-generational dynasty. Perhaps the Scales of Justice will tip however slightly in favor of justice for all. That would be a good thing.
Next up, a discussion of the Murdaugh banker's trial that actually happened in late 2022 well before his trial. Guilty on all counts.