Family of woman found dead in Belk restroom files lawsuit

Published: Sep. 19, 2023 at 3:51 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 19, 2023 at 9:07 PM CDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS/Gray News) - The family of a woman found dead in the restroom of a Belk store in South Carolina has filed a lawsuit against the department store.

WIS reported 63-year-old Bessie Durham was found dead inside a public restroom at a Belk store location in Columbia on Sept. 22, 2022.

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

Officials say Durham, who worked as a custodian, was found four days later by a co-worker.

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

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.

On Tuesday, Durham’s family announced they filed a lawsuit against Belk, Inc.

In a news 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.”

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.

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

“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.”

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,” Hart said.

“We were not able to properly bury our loved one because Belk was too busy making money. We want to see changes made so that no other family has to suffer like we have,” said the family in the release.

No trial date has been set.

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.