Drowning settlement could be among state’s largest in 2013

dwren@thesunnews.comDecember 31, 2013 

An Horry County couple has received $2 million in a negligence case brought against the owners of an Orlando, Fla., vacation home and the property leasing group that failed to maintain an alarm at the home’s pool, where the couple’s three-year-old child drowned in 2012 while on a trip to Disney World.

The settlement – negotiated by Myrtle Beach lawyer Russell Mace, who represented the couple – is expected to be one of the largest settlements in a South Carolina-related case for 2013. S.C. Lawyer’s Weekly, a trade publication that tracks verdicts and settlements, will announce the year’s largest dollar awards in an upcoming edition.

Under terms of the settlement, the names of the parties and the defense lawyers are confidential. Florida lawyers Jeffrey Altman and Michael Haggard joined Mace in representing the couple. The case, which would have been heard in an Osceola, Fla., courtroom, was settled during mediation.

Mace said he received an unexpected break in the case when the leasing company accidentally sent him copies of repair orders for the home. Mace had asked the company for basic information about its insurance policies.

The repair orders showed that three days before the couple arrived a housekeeper notified the leasing company’s maintenance office that the pool’s alarm was beeping, indicating that it needed new batteries. A maintenance crew replaced the batteries in the home’s smoke alarm, but not the pool alarm. The housekeeper later reported that the pool alarm was still beeping, but no further maintenance was conducted.

The leasing company and the homeowners’ insurance companies split the $2 million settlement.

The leasing company settled its half after being confronted with the maintenance records. Citizens Property Insurance initially offered to settle its portion of the lawsuit for $50,000. However, as the case was getting ready to go to trial in May, Citizens Property Insurance increased its offer to $300,000, which was the policy’s limit. The homeowners also had an umbrella policy with American Strategic Insurance Co., which paid the remaining $700,000.

Mace called the case “tragic” because it could have been prevented with proper maintenance. Florida building codes call for property owners to install an alarm at each entry-way to a pool. The malfunctioning alarm in this case was located on a sliding-glass door that led from the home to the pool area.

The accident occurred during the last day of the couple’s Christmas vacation at the Florida resort.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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