Loading articles...

Lawsuit filed over department store worker who died in store bathroom, body not found for days

Last Updated Sep 19, 2023 at 1:13 pm MDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The family of a department store worker whose body remained in a locked bathroom for days after she died is suing the company, saying her body was so decomposed they couldn’t even hold an open casket funeral.

Cleaning worker Bessie Durham went to the family bathroom at the Belk store near Columbia, South Carolina, around 7 a.m. on a Thursday and died from a cardiac problem shortly after clocking in, attorney Chris Hart said.

She never clocked out and her cleaning cart sat outside the locked door for four days until Columbia Police called the store trying to find Durham because her family reported the 63-year-old woman missing, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday.

The suit was filed a year to the day when her body was found on Sept. 19, 2022, at the store at Columbiana Mall.

The store was open for regular hours the entire time. Durham worked for a company contracted to clean the store, and the manager called while she was dead but no one had found her to complain the bathrooms weren’t getting cleaned, Hart said.

“They didn’t ask if Bessie was OK. They didn’t ask why hasn’t this cart moved in four days,” Hart said. “They asked why aren’t the bathrooms being cleaned.”

Belk didn’t respond to an email seeking comment about the lawsuit. After Durham’s death last November, the company said in a statement it sent its deepest condolences to Durham’s family and was trying to figure out what had happened.

Columbia Police investigated, but determined no crime had been committed, spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said.

An autopsy found Durham died from a cardiac problem, and older people often feel what seems like a need to use the bathroom in the moments before they are struck, Hart said.

The family isn’t asking for a specific amount of damages. The lawsuit said Belk employees should have regularly inspected the store not only for Durham’s safety, but the safety of shoppers and other employees.

The store began locking the bathroom after a shooting at the mall. Keeping the bathroom open, but locked, also created a safety hazard that prevented Durham from getting help, the lawsuit said.

Durham’s body showed obvious signs of decomposition when it was found, preventing the family from properly grieving, attorney Justin Bamberg said.

“This family should have had the opportunity to say goodbye the right way instead of having to sit at the funeral and smell the decomposing body of someone they cared about,” Bamberg said.

Jeffrey Collins, The Associated Press