Widow’s lawsuit blames failed Fort Jackson dam for husband’s death

A Columbia widow whose husband drowned after a Fort Jackson dam broke during a 2015 storm has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal government, claiming the Army knew the dam was in poor shape but didn’t fix problems before the historic rainfall.

A 2013 federal inspection documented deficiencies in the 75-year-old Semmes Lake dam, but the government “utterly failed to remedy or even address the dam’s serious risk of failure,’’ according to Lois McCarty’s lawsuit.

As a result, flood waters rushed out of Semmes Lake and drowned Bob McCarty downstream, the suit says. McCarty died in his automobile in the lower Devine Street area below the broken dam about 6:30 a.m. Oct. 4, 2015. He was one of two people who died in the area. The Semmes Lake dam failed about 3 a.m., according to the lawsuit.

Lois McCarty’s case is the first known wrongful death suit to stem from the Fort Jackson dam failure. It also is one of the first to allege that the Semmes Lake deficiencies were never addressed by the fort. If those allegations are true, they could cost the government millions of dollars.

Before she sued in federal court, McCarty had filed legal claims totaling $30 million, said Jones Andrews, an attorney representing her. The federal government turned down those claims, which led to the suit.

“We especially look forward to pursuing this on behalf of Mrs. McCarty and her deceased husband; it had to be a horrible death,’’ Andrews said.

Not repairing the dam was “an intentional, conscious failure to exercise even slight care,’’ the complaint says. The federal suit also blames the government for what it said was a failure to warn Bob and Lois McCarty of the dam’s danger.

Since the flood, attorneys have filed an array of legal claims, mostly for property damage they say people suffered downstream during the historic rainstorm. While dams failed in other parts of Columbia’s Gills Creek watershed as water levels rose, the one at Semmes Lake has sparked some of the most intense scrutiny since the storm.

Last year, property owners from the nearby King’s Grant neighborhood sued the government, claiming the dam’s Oct. 4, 2015 failure caused flooding in the gated community and at least $20 million in damage to property. Flooding was widespread that weekend in the Columbia area. More than 16 inches of rain fell in a storm unlike any that people could remember.

In November, nearly six dozen Columbia residents who live in the Lake Katherine area sued the U.S. government over the dam failure, claiming the fort contributed to their misery during the 2015 storm. Those property owners include Andrews and several other lawyers who say their homes were damaged.

And a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the King’s Grant Owners Association also seeks compensation for damages. The suit says the fort knew about the dam’s poor condition but didn’t make repairs. The property owners say commons’ areas in the high-end neighborhood were damaged.

Attempts to reach federal officials in Washington for comment were unsuccessful, but an answer filed by the government in the case of the six dozen Columbia residents denies allegations that the officials knew the dam was in bad shape and failed to make repairs. The response says the October 2015 deluge was an “Act of God’’ that could not be avoided. The response says federal law does not allow the citizens to sue for damages. It also says people living downstream from dammed up lakes “assumed the risk.’’

Fort Jackson now is working on a plan to restore the dam that for decades held back the 29-acre recreational lake on the military training base.

McCarty’s wrongful death suit follows stories in The State last year showing problems at the Semmes Lake dam during 2013 and highlighting what happened the morning of Oct 4, 2015.

The newspaper reported Bob McCarty drowned between 6:30 and 7 a.m., just a few hours after the Semmes Lake dam broke. The area where he died was within about two miles of the dam. McCarty, who had taken his wife to the airport that morning, was returning to their southeast Columbia home when his car ran into flooding along lower Devine Street.

In response to an open records request, the Army provided The State with emails documenting deficiencies and recommending dam improvements. One email by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official said the dam had been last inspected in 2013 and was rated as a serious hazard. The email goes on to say the Corps had described deficiencies that may have led to the dam’s failure in October 2015.

The newspaper in December 2016 obtained a full copy of the inspection report. The report found holes, broken equipment and excessive vegetation on the dam two years before the structure broke in 2015.

McCarty’s lawsuit cites some of the newspaper’s reporting in arguing that she is entitled to compensation from the federal government for, among other things, “unnecessary grief and sorrow’’ at losing her husband.