Breaking News
More () »

'We want justice:' Family of woman found dead at Belk in Columbia files lawsuit, claiming negligence

The filing came on the one-year anniversary of Bessie Durham being found dead at the Belk store at Columbiana Centre in the Harbison area.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The family of a woman found dead at a Belk store in Columbia is suing the department store, claiming negligence by employees because she was left dead inside the restroom for four days. 

Bessie Durham's family members, along with their lawyers, held a news conference Tuesday after filing the suit in court in Richland County. The filing came on the one-year anniversary of Durham being found dead at the Belk store at Columbiana Centre in the Harbison area. 

"She was a loving mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, and wife. We’re all just wanting ownership to be taken," said her daughter Sylvia Smith. 

Durham had worked for a company contracted to clean the restrooms of the department store and had gone inside the restroom around 7 p.m. on September 15, according to the suit. 

"She logged in at 7 a.m., she never logged out," said Attorney Chris Hart. 

The lawsuit says she never came back out, a claim they say is backed up by surveillance footage. On September 20, 2022, Durham's body was discovered by employees of the store inside the restroom that she had been assigned to clean. 

The Lexington County Coroner's Office determined Durham died of natural causes. Both the coroner and her family said she had been dead inside the restroom for four days before she was found.  Her yellow cleaning cart had been parked outside the restroom for the entire time.

The family says the fact that no employee thought it was suspicious or odd that the cart remained outside the restroom for days shows negligence by the store. They argue there should have been safeguards and procedures for the inspection of the restrooms. They also said the company that Belk hired to clean the store also had a duty, and if they didn't, Belk was also negligent by hiring that company. 

“They didn’t ask if Bessie was OK. They didn’t ask why hasn’t this cart moved in four days, they asked why bathrooms weren’t the bathrooms being cleaned," said Attorney Chris Hart. 

In addition, the family said the store had a policy enacted after a shooting at the mall earlier in 2022 that the door be locked, which further exacerbated the problem.  As a result, her body was heavily decomposed by the time it was found making it impossible for them to hold an open casket funeral. 

"We couldn’t even view the body we didn't have any last moments, we couldn't see her smile, we couldn't see how beautiful she was," said her oldest daughter Sheneki Jeter. 

The suit said it left one of the plaintiffs "shocked emotionally and scarred for the rest of his life."

The family is seeking punitive damages from Belk. 

News19 reached out to Belk for the company's reaction to the lawsuit but has not heard back. 

According to Hart, another lawsuit will be filed against the contractor for whom Durham worked at the time of her death.

Hart says the family hopes to use the money from the lawsuit to establish a scholarship for low-income girls to attend a trade school.

"Honestly, we just justice so it won’t happen to anybody else's relative," said Jeter.  

Before You Leave, Check This Out