As much as $3 million in additional undisclosed insurance settlements may have been diverted from the estate of attorney Alex Murdaugh’s late housekeeper, says a lawyer who last week filed a lawsuit claiming that $505,000 in known insurance proceeds were mishandled by Murdaugh.
“There were at least $3 million in other insurance payments due to the heirs of Gloria Satterfield, and we’re going to be going after that money,” said Eric Bland, the Columbia attorney who filed the lawsuit last week.
“That $3 million is missing,” Bland said Friday in an interview.
The initial lawsuit alleges that Alex Murdaugh and two of his friends — another lawyer and a banker — are responsible for diverting $505,000 from Satterfield’s two sons, her estate’s rightful heirs.
Bland said he expects to file additional legal actions soon naming other parties who could be responsible for the missing money. He declined to identify them Friday.
Satterfield, a longtime housekeeper and nanny for the Murdaugh family, died in February 2018 after a fall at the family house in Hampton County. She was 57. She died without a will, and by law, her rightful and only heirs are her two sons, Tony Satterfield and Brian Herriott, Bland’s lawsuit said.
Bland’s allegations that Murdaugh and two friends may have participated in a scheme to siphon millions from the legitimate beneficiaries of Satterefield’s estate are only the most recent events in an expanding true crime saga that has captivated not just people in South Carolina but national media outlets.
In recent months, events involving Murdaugh, a prominent well-to-do S.C. lawyer, include the unsolved June murders of his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul; his alleged embezzlement of millions from his former Hampton County law firm; his acknowledgment of an expensive oxycodone habit; and his hiring a hit man to stage his suicide so Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster, could collect a $10 million life insurance policy.
Dick Harpootlian, an attorney representing Murdaugh in the criminal charges against him, said Friday that his client had not yet been served with Bland’s lawsuit and had no comment.
A separate matter
The money alleged to be missing from the Satterfield estate is a separate matter from the millions Murdaugh allegedly stole from his former law firm, Bland said.
Alex Murdaugh admitted he bore responsibility for Satterfield’s fatal fall, thus clearing the way for him to be sued for being responsible for the housekeeper’s death, Bland’s lawsuit said.
Murdaugh then arranged for Satterfield’s two sons to press a claim against him for their mother’s death and assured Satterfield’s relatives he would “take care of the boys,” the lawsuit said.
“Alex Murdaugh told his insurer that there was no defense to the claim and that the claim must be paid,” Bland’s lawsuit said.
With that admission, Murdaugh also arranged for his best friend, Beaufort attorney Corey Fleming, and another friend, Hampton banker Chad Westendorf, to handle money received from Satterfield’s death on various insurance policies, Bland’s lawsuit said.
Bland said in a Friday interview the total insurance under policies for Murdaugh and his house came to at least $3.5 million.
“Once Alex admitted he was responsible for the death, the insurance companies had to pay out money or go before a Hampton County jury to contest the cause of the death and the amount of liability associated with it,” Bland said.
“Without filing a lawsuit, Fleming ... and Westendorf were able to achieve a partial settlement of the claims associated with the death of Gloria from Lloyds of London in the amount of $505,000,” Bland’s lawsuit said.
Fleming and Westendorf could not be reached for comment for this story.
Court records reflect that the only payouts from the $505,000 in the Satterfield estate show that Fleming’s law firm, Moss, Kuhn & Fleming, received $166,000 for his legal representation and an additional $11,500 for expenses, Bland’s lawsuit said.
“The remaining settlement funds remain unaccounted for,” the lawsuit said. .
Laws govern ‘wrongful deaths’
Satterfield’s death from a fall was characterized as a “wrongful death,” and settlements in such matters have to be approved by a judge, under state law.
But there is no court order saying any judge approved disbursal of the $505,000, and also no court record that might show any judge approved $3 million in additional payouts, Bland said in a Friday interview.
“We are looking for the judge or judges who might have been part of this procedure,” Bland said.
State law requires a judge to hold a hearing, question the personal representative about monetary arrangements and then issue a written order directing where settlement money goes.
“Any settlement of a wrongful death or survival action must be approved by either a probate court, circuit court or U.S. District Court,” according to state law governing wrongful death cases.
Court records show Westendorf, Murdaugh’s banker friend, was appointed the “personal representative” for Satterfield’s estate.
“Only a duly appointed personal representative... shall have the authority to settle wrongful death or survival actions,” state law says.
A personal representative must set forth in a petition “the basic facts surrounding the death of the decedent, the pertinent facts surrounding the liability of the alleged wrongdoer, the amount of insurance available to pay for damages, the terms of the proposed settlement” and other basic information such as who gets the money, the law says.
None of that information was filed in Satterfield’s death, Bland’s lawsuit says.
SLED probes Satterfield case
Last Wednesday, the same day that Bland filed the lawsuit, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced it was opening a criminal investigation into Satterfield’s death.
In announcing the investigation, SLED released a letter from the Hampton County coroner written the same day.
“According to a ‘petition for approval of a wrongful death settlement’ in the Court of Common Pleas (state civil court) in Hampton County ... the decedent Gloria Satterfield died as a ‘result of injuries sustained in a trip and fall accident... The defendant in this case was Richard A. (Alex) Murdaugh,” said the letter from coroner Angela Topper.
Satterfield’s “death was not reported to the coroner at the time, nor was an autopsy performed. On the death certificate, the manner of death was ruled ‘natural,’ which is inconsistent with injuries sustained in a trip and fall accident,” the coroner wrote.
From SLED’s public statement, it was not clear whether the agency is investigating how she died or the handling of insurance money, or both.
On Thursday, Murdaugh, who has been in an out-of-state drug rehabilitation facility, appeared in a Hampton County magistrate’s court to be arraigned on criminal charges, including conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. He pleaded not guilty to a scheme alleging that he hired a hit man to kill him for a $10 million insurance payout to his son. Murdaugh was released on $20,000 personal recognizance bond provided he returned to his drug treatment facility.
For more than 80 years, the Murdaugh family has provided elected prosecutors in Hampton and four other Lowcountry counties. As prosecutors, the Murdaughs — including Alex, who served as an assistant prosecutor — put criminals on trial and in jail. As civil lawyers, Murdaugh won major settlements and court verdicts.
But last week, during the bond hearing, a member of the Murdaugh family was on the other side of the law.
“He has fallen from grace,” Harpootlian, Murdaugh’s attorney, told Magistrate Tonja Alexander.
Island Packet reporter Kacen Bayless contributed to this story.