MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — An Horry County judge has denied a request by a Myrtle Beach lifeguard company to reduce punitive damages awarded in a lawsuit filed by the family of a drowning victim.

Circuit Judge Kristi F. Curtis found “that the punitive damages award in this case is reasonable, is not grossly excessive or unduly liberal, was not actuated by passion, caprice, or prejudice, or some other influence outside of the evidence, and does not violate due process,” according to a court order.

The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by Maswaet Abel, who the lawsuit said was the fiancé of Zurihun Wolde at the time of his drowning death in 2018. The lawsuit originally named the city of Myrtle Beach and Lack’s Beach Service, but the city was dismissed before the case went to trial.

A jury awarded Wolde’s family $20.7 million — $13.7 million in actual damages and $7 million in punitive damages — in July after a weeklong jury trial.

After the verdict, according to court documents, Lack’s Beach Service requested a new trial but sought to have the damages reduced to $300,000 in the absence of a new trial. The company claimed that because the company was contracted by the city of Myrtle Beach, the South Carolina Tort Claims Act applies, which caps awards for actual damages at $300,000 and doesn’t allow for punitive damages to be recovered.

Lack’s Beach Service previously said the jury decided the case “based on speculation, sympathy and passion” and delivered “an excessive verdict,” according to documents. The company claims the jury failed to follow instructions from the court.

In the order upholding the damages award, Curtis cited the company’s practice of using dual-role lifeguards.

“In this case, the harm to Mr. Wolde was physical and resulted in the loss of his life at forty-one years of age,” the order said. “The conduct of Lack’s in employing a decade-long system of ‘dual-role’ lifeguards even in the face of repeated warnings from USLA that the practice was dangerous and violated USLA safety standards supports the punitive damages award.”

The order also cited testimony that said “Lack’s knowingly misrepresented to USLA that its
lifeguards were no longer actively engaged in concessions in order to maintain its USLA
certification for several years and then continued the practice even after losing its USLA
certification. In addition, Lack’s incentivized the lifeguards to focus more on the concessions
role than the lifeguarding role by paying the guards a commission based on their beach rentals,
all while knowing that the inattention would jeopardize public safety.”