Family blames inconsiderate’ phone call for grandmother’s death, wins $1.75 million lawsuit
The lawsuit said the phone call was fatal.
Omega Nesbit was two months behind on her rent in September 2006 when her property manager telephoned her West Ashley house. She and her family would be kicked out the next day, the caller said.
Nesbit’s 62-year-old mother, who answered the phone, did not take the news lightly.
She started to panic. Her body shook. Her skin turned pale and her breathing heavy. Within an hour she suffered a heart attack, and in another two hours she died.
That’s all according to a lawsuit alleging that Maxine Nesbit’s death resulted from the “egregious and inconsiderate” phone call and a breach of tenant law.
In a judgment filed this week, a judge ordered the brokerage firm, the now-defunct Dean-Kelby Realty of Mount Pleasant, to pay her daughter $1.75 million.
It Is not known whether the family will ever see that money. The company has dissolved.
Omega Nesbit, in a deposition, said she had asked the manager to refrain from speaking with her mother because of her fragile health. When the call came regardless of the warning, she knew the threat was empty, but her mother did not.
“I told (my mother) to calm down. I ... told her everything was OK,” Omega Nesbit said. “My mother was very fearful that somebody would come and put our stuff out.”
Attempts to contact the former Dean-Kelby employees and the homeowner, John Burg of Columbia, all of whom were named as defendants in the lawsuit, were not successful.
Burg’s response to the lawsuit said Nesbit “should have known that failure to pay rent might result in eviction” and that leaving a phone with her mother could cause distress. It was alleged that he ordered Dean-Kelby to make the phone call, but he took no responsibility for the company’s actions.
He acknowledged only that it was a possibility that he did such a thing, according to his deposition.
Dean-Kelby, a local franchisee of Weichert Realtors, was sold and later dissolved in early 2009, according to state business records. The lawsuit was filed that August, and the company’s primary agent, Bryan Kelby Crabtree, filed for bankruptcy the next month and was absolved of financial responsibility in the case.
The company and its representatives were served the lawsuit, but they never showed up for later court hearings or offered any defense, according to court documents. That’s why Crabtree thinks the Nesbits were awarded the “standard default judgment,” he said.
Crabtree, whose website bills him as the top home seller in the Charleston area, told The Post and Courier that he was unaware of the case details, but he said he was “very sorry for their loss.”
Omega Nesbit had been staying at 1561 Mulberry St. in the Ardmore neighborhood for nearly a year when she stopped paying her $650-per-month rental fee.
But she had a reason, according to a transcript of her deposition.
In her time living there with her mother, grandmother and three children, Nesbit complained of various maintenance issues — sewage backing up into the toilet and bathtub, a small electrical fire in the bathroom.
But the main problem was the three broken windows. Family members installed plastic to cover the breaches, but they leaked machine-cooled air in the summer. One month, her electricity bill for the 1,000-square-foot home hit $1,100, she claimed.
With her earnings as a dispatcher for a taxi company, she paid the amount and other routine expenses. But she refused to fork over the $1,300 in back rent unless the windows were repaired.
Dean-Kelby, which was hired to manage the property, brought eviction proceedings against her.
In court, Nesbit said that she and Jane Dawson, an agent for the company, agreed that if the windows were fixed, she would make good on the rent.
Nesbit said the windows were never patched.
She also received no order to leave the premises, she said. Under state law, eviction requires written notice 14 days in advance.
“I asked (Dawson) never to speak to my mother (about rent) because her health was so fragile,” she said in her deposition.
‘That can’t happen’
On Sept. 30, 2006, Omega Nesbit was visiting a neighbor when the phone rang. Her mother picked up the cordless landline.
“She said that Miss Dawson said that somebody was coming to put our stuff out on the street tomorrow,” Omega Nesbit said about her mother’s reaction to the call. “I told her that can’t happen.”
Maxine Nesbit handed off the phone to her daughter, who eventually ended the conversation.
Maxine Nesbit put her face in her hands. She was “visibly shaken and distraught,” according to the lawsuit complaint.
Omega Nesbit told her to “shake it off,” she said in court papers. She thought her mother would be all right, so she went to buy some cigarettes. She left her mother sitting on the front porch, reading a Bible.
Within 10 minutes, she got a call from a neighbor: Her mother had collapsed.
Maxine Nesbit suffered seizures, a stroke and a heart attack. Paramedics took her to Medical University Hospital. They gave her injections and placed her on a respirator, but she was pronounced dead in the emergency room.
Jeffrey Barnwell, of Charleston, who is Nesbit’s attorney, declined to comment further. He asked for $5 million in the wrongful-death claim.
Judge Mikell Scarborough awarded $1.5 million for actual and punitive damages. The remaining $250,000 of the judgment was intended to cover expenses and the suffering that the Nesbits were said to have endured.
The lawsuit claimed that the property manager’s phone call amounted to conduct that was “atrocious and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.