For Brenda Williams, the last four years and nearly three months have been a triumph of faith and forgiveness over self pity and hatred.
“I’ve gotten angry and I’ve cried sometimes, but I’ve never asked ‘Why me?’ and I’ve never questioned God,” Williams told The Sun News last week from her home in Conway as she prepared for a trial against retail giant Kmart, a division of Sears Holding Corp. “I would do the same thing all over again if I had to.”
Williams, now 54, was paralyzed from the waist down on the morning of Nov. 9, 2009, while trying to help an elderly woman whose purse had been snatched while she was shopping inside the Kmart store at 1403 N. Kings Highway in Myrtle Beach. That split-second, life-altering decision to help a stranger left the once-vibrant mother of two totally dependent on her children and 75-year-old mother, Brenda Bey, for the most basic of life’s functions.
“It’s been draining and very debilitating,” said Bey, who moved in with her daughter to be a full-time caregiver. “It has taken my life’s savings trying to help her.”
Ever since the incident, Kmart had maintained in court documents that it had no responsibility for Williams’ injuries. The retailer once offered Williams a big-screen television – retail price $799.99 – but never helped with the tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills that piled up over the years. Williams refused to accept the television, telling the retailer she already has one.
That stalemate ended Friday – just days before a jury trial was to begin in federal court – when Kmart and Williams reached a tentative settlement. It’s not clear how much money Kmart will pay because terms of the settlement weren’t disclosed in court documents. The court has given both sides 60 days to finalize the agreement.
Bey said she did not want to discuss details, but said she and her daughter “are happy with the settlement.”
Conway lawyer Ralph Wilson, who represents Williams, did not respond to several messages from The Sun News. Kmart lawyer John Tiller could not be reached for comment.
Williams and Bey told The Sun News they have never had any interest in getting rich from the tragedy, but they desperately need money to pay for Williams’ care. Williams, who also lost the use of her left arm, has been missing her therapy appointments because she can’t afford them. A home health-care expert estimated in court documents that Williams would need up to $6 million for home attendant care the rest of her life, not to mention the costs for medication, equipment, therapy services and transportation.
“We would simply like to stay afloat,” Bey said. “This has been devastating for us financially. We’d just like to be where we were before all of this happened – just a middle-class family.”
A cry for help, a shattered life
That fateful trip to Kmart started like many others Williams had made through the years.
Shonta Dennison, a Kmart employee who was working at the front of the store that morning, said she recognized Williams as a regular customer but didn’t know her name.
“I usually call her pretty lady,” Dennison said during a deposition that is included in court documents. “I just say, ‘Hey, pretty lady’.”
Williams was one of the store’s first customers that morning and went toward the layaway department while Dennison wiped down the front counters, court records show. Dennison said she saw a younger woman – later identified as 31-year-old Katherine Johnson – try to grab an older woman’s purse as the older woman talked on a pay phone just inside the store.
“She [Johnson] was tussling with her and trying to get the purse but she couldn’t never get it from her,” Dennison said in the deposition.
Dennison called security twice – over the store’s loudspeaker and by telephone – but never got an answer. Johnson finally gave up trying to take the woman’s purse at the pay phone and walked to the women’s clothing department, according to the deposition. Dennison continued working near the front of the store.
A few minutes later, Dennison said, “I saw her [Johnson] come running past me with a purse, and that’s when another older lady was running behind her, yelling, ‘She stole my purse’.”
Mary Fagnant, who was 73 years old at the time, gave chase to retrieve her purse, yelling for someone to help. That’s when Williams got involved.
Fagnant and Williams chased Johnson into the Kmart parking lot and, when Johnson got into her car, Williams reached through the driver’s side window and tried to remove the keys from the ignition. Johnson put the car in drive, dragging Williams for dozens of feet along the asphalt parking lot before running her over and leaving the scene.
Williams’ official medical diagnosis was grim: a thoracic spine fracture, brain injury, spinal cord injury, chest injury, multiple rib fractures, left femur fracture, left tibia fracture, multiple abrasions to her back, upper right arm, right elbow and right forearm and a three-inch gash on her forehead that penetrated to the bone. In layman’s terms, Williams would never be able to walk or care for herself again.
Johnson later told police she took Fagnant’s purse because she and her boyfriend were in Myrtle Beach for a “spur of the moment vacation” and, while they had checked into an oceanfront hotel, they had no money to pay the bill. Fagnant’s purse contained about $200.
A year later, Johnson pleaded guilty in an Horry County courtroom to three hit-and-run charges and one felony charge of assault and battery with intent to kill. Her sentence was 12 1/2 years for the assault charge plus 10 years for each hit-and-run charge, all to run concurrently. Johnson is being held at the Leath Correctional Institute in Greenwood, with a projected release date of July 1, 2020.
Williams said she finally was able to forgive Johnson when she saw her at the trial.
“It took a lot of prayer and my belief in God,” Williams said. “I hope she’s learned a lesson that you can’t do this kind of thing to people.”
Inspiration through family
Fagnant, whose injuries were less severe – she was bruised but treated and then released from a hospital – settled her lawsuit against Kmart earlier this month. Fagnant declined an interview request from The Sun News.
Kmart took its court battle with Williams almost to the last minute. A jury trial in her case was scheduled to start Monday morning in Florence. Kmart had filed court documents trying to block some of the evidence Williams planned to present as late as Wednesday.
Kmart, in court documents, said it was not responsible for Williams’ injuries because they took place in the parking lot outside of the store. Williams said the parking lot injuries were an extension of events that started within Kmart – events that could have been prevented with the proper store security.
Court documents show Williams’ lawyer had prepared extensive evidence against the retailer.
A memo from a Kmart vice president to store managers, obtained by Williams’ lawyer, said the retailer’s loss-control staff is responsible for customers’ safety in store parking lots, and cited purse snatchings as one of the incidents that loss-control could be called on to handle.
Security consultant Howard Wood prepared a report for Williams that said Kmart should have foreseen an incident such as the purse snatching because numerous crimes had been committed at that store location. For example, court records show there were 125 shoplifting incidents at that store in the year leading up to the purse snatching. A separate report by crime forecasting and data group Cap Index showed the area near the Kmart store had a violent and property crime rate more than three times higher than the national average.
Wood said Dennison should have called the police when she saw Johnson first attempt to take a woman’s purse at the store’s pay phone. He said Kmart should have had its loss-prevention staff on duty when the incident took place. And he said the store’s manager should have been notified. The manager didn’t arrive on the scene until after Williams had been run over by Johnson.
“Kmart’s failure to provide reasonable security measures . . . was the proximate cause of the incident on Nov. 9, 2009,” Wood wrote in his report.
Even an expert hired by Kmart took a dim view of the stores employees’ failure to intervene in the purse snatching.
“It is my further opinion that the failure to act by Kmart personnel are not consistent with widely accepted principles of security management and breach the standard of care,” security consultant John Villines said in his report, which is included with court documents.
Williams told The Sun News that she was nervous as the trial approached and was looking forward to putting it behind her.
“I’ve been thinking about the length of time it has taken for us to get where we are right now,” she said. “I’ve watched my mom deteriorate every day this has gone on. She is tired and worn out.”
With the settlement putting an end to the court battles, Williams said she plans to focus much of her attention on her 1-year-old grandson, Legend, and the strong family ties she has with her mother, daughter, Breanna, and son, Lucius.
“My son often tells me that no matter what I need, he’ll do it,” she said. “And my daughter tries to keep me up with my looks. I get my real inspiration from seeing my grandchild and from my mom. She has been the strongest person in my life other than the Lord.”
Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.