Family of woman whose body was left for days in Columbia Belk files suit

Posted 9/19/23

The family of a woman who was found dead last year in a Belk bathroom is filing suit.

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Subscribe to continue reading. Already a subscriber? Sign in

Get 50% of all subscriptions for a limited time. Subscribe today.

You can cancel anytime.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Family of woman whose body was left for days in Columbia Belk files suit


The family of a woman who was found dead last year in a Belk bathroom is filing suit.

The body of Columbia resident Bessie Durham, 63, was found by an employee of the Belk department store at the Columbiana Centre mall Sept. 19, 2022, after Durham entered the bathroom days earlier on Sept. 15.

Attorneys Josh Hart, Seth Rose and Justin Bamberg, who all also serve as Democrats in the state House of Representatives, were joined by members of Durham’s family Tuesday, Sept. 19,  the anniversary of the day she was found, to announce that they have filed suit against Belk and will soon file suit against janitorial contractor KBS, for whom Durham was working at the time of her death.

The suits allege gross negligence on the part of the two companies, the lawyers explained to those in attendance at the late-morning press conference.

While Hart said the ultimate amount of damages they will seek from Belk is yet to be determined, the complaint, a copy of which was shared with the Chronicle, states that  the perosonal injury action seeks damages in excess of $7,500.

The Chronicle wasn’t immediately able to reach Belk and KBS for comment.

“We are here to make sure that we hold Belk accountable for their actions against Bessie Durham,” Hart said. “This time last year, one year ago, Bessie Durham was found slumped over, body decomposing on Belk’s restroom floor.”

Melron Kelly, deputy chief of the Columbia Police, told the Chronicle shortly after Durham’s body was found that she was located after a family member called the store saying that she had not been seen since Sept. 15, 2022.

Reached immediately after Durham was found, a spokesperson for Belk didn’t respond to the Chronicle’s questions about cleaning procedures for bathrooms at the Columbiana Centre Belk and if they were being re-evaluated following the discovery of the body.

The lawyers explained that the family’s suit takes issue with the fact that nobody checked on Durham’s whereabouts when she failed to report for work for four days, and that her cleaning cart — a picture of which was blown up and presented during the press conference — sat outside the restroom the entire time her body was left inside without anybody with the store taking it as a signal to check the bathroom.

Hart went on to say that the family restroom where Durham died locked behind her automatically when she entered due to a policy shift following the Easter weekend shooting that took place at the mall earlier in 2022, and this contributed to her body taking so long to be found.

“That policy created an inherent condition that entrapped Bessie Durham inside of that bathroom,” the lawyer posited. “And because of that, this family is still suffering. They couldn't even have an open casket funeral. They couldn't even identify their mother. They never got to say, as we all would like to do for our loved ones, pay your last respect. They didn't get that opportunity.”

Hart said the store had a legal responsibility to inspect the store and inspect the restrooms, which should have resulted in Durham’s body being found much earlier.

The lawyers didn’t go into as much detail on the suit they plan to bring against KBS, but emphasized that an employer has a legal and moral obligation to check on an employee when they go missing.

The lawyers said it is believed Durham died on the toilet after suffering a “cardiac event.” Bamberg used an example of how his law firm attempted to reach an older employee with health issues when she didn’t show up for work as an example of how the scenario at Belk could have played out differently.

“What we did because we care about the people we work with, we went to her house,” he said. “And you know what we found when we got there? That her TV was on, that her dog was inside barking, that her car was in the driveway. We called law enforcement. They made entry. And guess what? We found [her], a woman I have known my entire life who helped raise me, we found her dead on the toilet because she had a heart attack. And a lot of times, if you have a heart attack and you're at a certain age, you get this feeling, this physical feeling as though you have to use the bathroom. That is why so many people have found it from heart attacks on the toilet.”

The lawyers said Durham had worked directly for Belk for eight years previously to her employment with KBS, moving over to that company when they were hired to take on janitorial services at the store.

Answering a reporter, Hart said he was told in conversations with the family that they reported Durham missing after two or three days.

The press conference emphasized how beloved Durham was, with her daughter Sylvia Smith tearfully remarking on how much she has been missed.

“Our client was a dedicated employee,” Rose, one of the family’s attorneys, said. “She worked hard. But she was a human being. She was a family woman. She was a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother. And you can tell by the amount of family members that showed up here today she was much loved, and she is missed.” 

Kailee Kokes contributed to this report.

belk body found, lexington county death, columbiana centre, bessie durham, josh hart, seth rose, justin bamberg, kbs janitorial services


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here