Attorneys who sued the federal government over a broken Fort Jackson dam are withdrawing from the case after telling clients they can’t prove the structure’s failure led to flooding in people’s homes during a massive storm two years ago, according to documents obtained by The State.
In a federal court filing last month, the McGowan Hood and Felder law firm said its attorneys will no longer pursue the property damage case against Fort Jackson over the failure of the Semmes Lake dam in October 2015. The firm represented more than 50 people whose property was damaged during the flood.
The decision to quit the case is the first sign that some legal claims against the government over the broken Army dam, as well as a smaller dike nearby, may be in trouble.
An array of lawsuits say the Fort Jackson dam break contributed to major flooding downstream that wrecked homes and, and in one instance, killed an unsuspecting motorist the morning of Oct. 4, 2015. Legal cases blame Fort Jackson for not fixing the Semmes Lake dam, saying the federal government knew the structure needed repair well before the flood.
Two years before the breach, federal inspectors found holes, broken equipment and extensive vegetation on the 77-year-old Semmes Lake dam. Inspectors had recommended improving the earthen dam, but the federal government has never said whether it took steps to do so.
It was not known Monday if residents would seek other legal counsel to continue the suit against the federal government, although one of those suing said he did not think it was worthwhile. If the suit does not continue, the government would not have to pay potentially millions of dollars in property damage claims.
Jones Andrews, an attorney with the McGowan law firm, declined comment Monday. A letter to Andrews’ clients, obtained by The State newspaper, indicates that the firm does not believe a case can be made against Fort Jackson.
The firm hired “multiple’’ experts to examine the link between water pouring off the base and flooding on people’s property downstream, but had little success in showing a connection, according to the May 17 letter from Andrews to clients. In addition to the Semmes Lake dam, a dike holding back the Lower Legion Lake pond also ruptured.
“Unfortunately, our experts have been unable to make a connection between the water that initially flooded your property and the water released from the broken dams at Fort Jackson,’’ the letter said. “The same conclusion was reached by other outside experts as well. Essentially three different groups of experts have reviewed this issue and independently arrived at the same conclusion.
“Without an expert to connect your loss to Fort Jackson, we are unable to proceed forward with your case.’’
Vince Osborne, whose home off South Beltline was heavily damaged during the flood, said he doesn’t want to pursue the case. The McGowan firm made no promises when it filed the lawsuit, so he was not surprised that attorneys were pulling out of the case, Osborne said.
“There was water in everybody’s houses, but where did it come from?’’ Osborne asked. “I wouldn’t say it was a hopeless case to start, but it was going to be hard to prove. They were all up-front about that.’’
Aside from the publicly owned Semmes Lake dam and Lower Legion Lake dike at the fort, a handful of private dams upstream from the Army structure broke during the storm.
Efforts to reach the U.S. Department of Justice, which is handling the case for Fort Jackson, were unsuccessful Monday. Fort Jackson has said it hopes to rebuild the dam.
In addition to the property damage suit McGowan Hood plans to withdraw from, the firm also represents Osborne and other residents in a flood lawsuit involving a railroad company, as well as a Columbia woman who claims the Semmes Lake dam break contributed to her husband’s death.
It was not known Monday if the firm intends to withdraw from that case. Lois McCarty, whose lawsuit blames the dam’s failure for her husband’s death, said Monday she has not spoken with Andrews “in a while’’ and did not know the status of her case. She deferred questions to Andrews. Bob McCarty drowned after dropping off his wife at the airport and running into high waters as he tried to reach his home off Garners Ferry Road.
Separately, another law firm, headed by former U.S. Attorney Pete Strom, is handling a lawsuit for residents of the King’s Grant neighborhood in a $20 million property damage case against the Army and Fort Jackson. Strom said Monday night his case is continuing, although it has been a challenge. More than 20 depositions are planned, including that of a ranking U.S. Army official this week in Washington, D.C.
“We’ve learned that some of the homes we thought may have been damaged by fort flood water may have been damaged by other water, and consequently, there are homes we did not think were affected by the fort, that were affected by the fort,’’ he said, declining to discuss specifics. But Strom said the case “is all alive and well and we’re moving forward.’’
The 2015 flood, caused by a freak rain system that stalled over South Carolina, dropped about 20 inches on the Midlands. Creeks overflowed their banks, flooding streets and overwhelming the area’s water and sewer systems. Many residents had to be rescued from their homes in boats that maneuvered down flooded streets.