‘The vehicle was a death trap’: Family of woman who drowned in HCSO transport van files lawsuit

‘The vehicle was a death trap’: Family of woman who drowned in HCSO transport van files lawsuit
Wendy Newton was one of the two women who drowned in an Horry County Sheriff's Office transport van in September. (Source: Allison Newton)

HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) – The family of one of two mental health patients who drowned while in the back of a Horry County Sheriff’s Office transport van has filed a lawsuit.

Wendy Newton’s family names several defendants in the case which include: Horry County, Horry County Sheriff’s Office, Horry County Sheriff Phillip Thompson, Elizabeth Orlando, who is the head of the transportation department at J. Reuben Long Detention Center, and former Horry County Sheriff’s Office corrections officers Stephen Flood and Joshua Bishop.

“This is a bittersweet day. This is a very heartfelt complaint. We spent a lot of time investigating this, looking into this. We spent time and resources making sure that we did not sue any person or government unnecessarily. This was important to us because of the gravity of death. We did not want to burden any government or person with this horrifying tragedy without sound reason,” said Preston Brittain, the lawyer representing Newton’s family.

Flood and Bishop have been criminally charged in the case. Flood faces two counts of reckless homicide and two counts of involuntary manslaughter, while Bishop is charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter.

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The lawsuit states that Newton suffered from schizophrenia and was voluntarily taken on Sept. 18, 2018 to McLeod Loris Hospital to seek treatment. Her doctor sedated her and requested a transfer to Rebound Behavioral Health in Lancaster, S.C., court documents show.

Newton and another mental health patient, Nicolette Green, were then picked up by Flood and Bishop and “restrained in a small caged, locked compartment of a Horry County prisoner transport van,” the lawsuit states.

Court documents claims that it is Horry County’s policy to transport mental health patients from one health facility to another in a prisoner convict van and under prisoner convict conditions, which include restraining them and locking them inside the van with no way of getting out.

Nicolette Green (left) and Wendy Newton drowned September 18, 2018 in the back of an Horry County Sheriff's Office transport van. (Source: Green and Newton families)
Nicolette Green (left) and Wendy Newton drowned September 18, 2018 in the back of an Horry County Sheriff's Office transport van. (Source: Green and Newton families)

“Horry County and HCSO’s systemic indifference toward those with mental illness directly resulted in the suffering and deaths of Wendy Newton and Nicolette Green,” the lawsuit states.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, floodwaters posed a threat and the lawsuit shows that Flood and Bishop discussed with higher-ranking officers the dangers of driving in floodwaters and that they should avoid going through the town of Nichols or taking Highway 9.

“Defendants Bishop and Flood nevertheless proceeded to drive through Nichols. They encountered a barricade manned by the National Guard, which allowed them to pass solely because they were law enforcement. A National Guardsman warned Defendants Bishop and Flood that, earlier in the day, he had to turn around on that route because of high flood waters. Defendants Bishop and Flood drove through the barricade,” according to the lawsuit.

At 5:49 p.m. on Sept. 18, 2018, Bishop radioed that the transport van was stuck and under water, the lawsuit says. Court documents go on to say that Bishop and Flood attempted to get Newton and Green out of the van, but they didn’t have the keys to unlock the cage, and so the two women were trapped in the cage compartment of the van, unable to escape and breathe.

SCDNR released photos of the Horry County Sheriff’s Office van swept away by floodwaters last September. (Source: SCDNR)
SCDNR released photos of the Horry County Sheriff’s Office van swept away by floodwaters last September. (Source: SCDNR)

“At 6:59 p.m., approximately an hour and ten minutes after Defendant Bishop first radioed for help, he reported that he could no longer hear the women in the van screaming for help,” the lawsuit states.

It wasn’t until the next day that the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources was able to bring in a dive team and recover their bodies.

According to the lawsuit, the metal grate that separated the two caged compartments in the van could have operated as an escape, but instead it was locked the defendants didn’t have a key to the door.

“The vehicle was a death trap,” the lawsuit states.

The court documents state that the defendants were treated as prisoners instead of mental health patients and all they could do for an hour was watch the Little Pee Dee River fill their caged compartment and drown.

The lawsuit states that Newton’s rights were violated, and she was deprived of her liberty and life. It also claims that she was falsely imprisoned and negligently caused her conscious pain and suffering and to die by drowning.

The family is asking for a jury trial in the case and damages to compensate for the pain and suffering.

WMBF reached out to the attorneys for Flood and Bishop and they offered these statements in regard to the newly-filed lawsuit.

Jonny McCoy, attorney for Stephen Flood:

Finally, the victims have their focus set on the proper bad actors, The Horry Co. Sheriff’s Dept and Marion County. The civil discovery process should yield what we’ve found through the criminal proceedings, the Horry County Sheriff’s Dept was grossly negligent and the cover-up that ensued was calculated, concerning and done so as to limit the liability of the Horry Co. Sheriff’s Dept and their senior officers. The victims deserve just retribution from the those who are the most culpable. Not just the ones that the Sheriff’s Department tells us to blame.

Bert von Herrmann, attorney for Joshua Bishop:

This is a tragic situation, one that has greatly impacted many lives. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of these young ladies. The impact on Mr. Bishop towards his heroic efforts to save lives has overwhelmed him and his family. The events that occurred will be forever in the hearts and minds of everyone in our community.

The Horry County Sheriff’s Office and Horry County have said they can’t comment on pending litigation.

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