The Deadliest Lake in South Carolina
In a previous post we noted that the unusually high number of drowning and near-drowning accidents occurring at Georgia’s Lake Sidney Lanier has led local water safety agencies to declare Lake Lanier to be the “Deadliest Lake in Georgia.” In today’s post the drowning accident lawyer at The Doan Law Firm will examine how a series of recent drowning deaths at South Carolina’s Lake Keowee could justify giving that lake the unenviable title of the “Deadliest Lake in South Carolina.”
3 Drowning Deaths at Lake Keowee in 3 Months, and More
In the most recent drowning accident, 63-year-old Robert “Bobby” McCombs drowned at Lake Keowee on Friday, July 26th while swimming near the family’s boat. Family members are reported to have told investigators that McCombs never resurfaced after diving into the water. An autopsy found no evidence of trauma and listed the cause of death as an accidental drowning. The other reported drowning accidents are:
July 2nd: 27-year-old Thomas Landon Gallman drowned in an area of Lake Keowee known as “The Rock” while trying to retrieve a water bottle that had floated away. A friend of Gallman who was present when the accident occurred reported that Gallman did not show any indication of being distressed but had simply failed to resurface after going underwater.
April 29th: 19-year-old Angelo D. Hall drowned at Fall Creek Landing after he also failed to resurface while swimming with friends.
According to an article published in The State on July 25, 2018, the Oconee County (SC) Coroner’s Office reported that, as of that date, there had been at least 32 drowning deaths at Lake Keowee within the past 25 years, with 17 of those deaths occurring at or near Fall Creek Landing, which the article described as “… a popular swimming and boating area that features a rock outcropping used for jumping in the lake.” Including the deaths so far this year those numbers are now 35 and 20, respectively.
Given the number of drowning deaths that have occurred at Lake Keowee, we thought it was reasonable to ask why the local and state authorities have not taken more aggressive actions to prevent accidental drownings at the lake. The answer to that question was, by way of understatement, surprising! But first, some background information.
Lake Keowee was created by what was then Duke Power (now Duke Energy Carolinas) to serve as a resource for electric power generation. Beginning in the 1960s, companies with ties to Duke Power began quietly purchasing farm and timberland north of Seneca, South Carolina. Once the land had been acquired, Duke Power announced its plans to use what would become Lake Keowee as a water source for hydroelectric generators at the soon to be constructed Keowee Dam and for the cooling towers at the Oconee Nuclear Station. Lake Keowee, and its shoreline is, in reality, owned by Duke Energy Carolinas, which allows public access to the lake during daylight hours. Since it is private property, state and local law enforcement lack the authority to do much more than “pick up the pieces” following an accident at the lake unless a crime has been committed.
In a 2018 story carried by the Associated Press, Duke Energy spokesperson Heather Danenhower stated that the company’s policy is to permit swimming on the lake (except at boat docks / launch areas) from dawn to dusk seven days a week, along with the use of natural recreation areas such as rock formations to jump into the lake but that alcohol and drug use at the lake was prohibited even though Duke Energy does not take an active role in enforcing its own regulations.
"Lake Keowee is not staffed with lifeguards or others at the gate or boat ramps, and people swim and boat there at their own risk…" she stated.
As the owner of Lake Keowee, Duke Energy Carolinas could be in the same position as any other property owner with respect to the legal doctrine of premises liability. In essence, this doctrine states that a property owner is liable for any injuries that occur on his or her property if the owner knew, or should have known, that a condition posed a danger to a visitor. In the case at hand, Duke Energy Carolinas would be the property owner and Lake Keowee would be the premises. Although far more complicated issues probably exist, it would appear that Duke Energy Carolinas could be held liable if it could be shown that it was negligent by not taking sufficient measures to protect visitors from the known risks of injury.
We will be following developments in the drowning accident cases mentioned here as well as in other drowning accidents that have occurred under similar circumstances at other lakes and reservoirs. We invite you to visit our blog for the latest news on drowning and other aquatic accident injuries.