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Family Files Suit Over Store Janitor Found Dead in Bathroom 4 Days After She Went Missing

Bessie Durham's family claims the store was negligent for not properly inspecting the bathrooms or supervising the contractor, Durham's employer

<p>Jeffrey Collins/AP</p> Bessie Durham

Jeffrey Collins/AP

Bessie Durham's family and lawyers hold a news conference on Sept. 19 in Columbia, South Carolina.

The family of a South Carolina woman found dead last year in a Belk department store bathroom four days after she went missing is now suing the retailer.

Bessie Durham's family members and their lawyers held a news conference on Tuesday after filing the lawsuit in a Richland County court, according to CBS affiliate WLTX, the Associated Press and Fox affiliate WACH. The lawsuit comes on the one-year anniversary of Durham's body being discovered.

The 63-year-old janitor was last seen on store surveillance footage entering a bathroom at a Belk location in Columbiana Center near Columbia, South Carolina, around 7 a.m. on Sept. 15, 2022, according to the reports. She died from a cardiac event shortly after, attorney Chris Hart said, per the AP.

The lawsuit says Durham — who was employed by KBS, a facilities services company contracted to clean the Belk store's bathrooms — never clocked out from her shift, the AP reported. Durham's cleaning cart remained outside the locked bathroom door for four days before her body was discovered on Sept. 19, 2022, by store employees, the outlet reported, citing the suit. At the time, Durham's family had contacted Columbia Police and reported her missing.

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Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher said in a statement to PEOPLE last year that an autopsy found that Durham died of natural causes, and the results revealed no indication of foul play. Columbia Police also investigated Durham's death, but determined no crime had been committed, the AP reported.

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In their lawsuit, the family claims that Belk failed to properly inspect the bathrooms and was negligent for not properly supervising the contractor it hired to clean and inspect the bathrooms, according to WACH.

The family also questioned why none of the store's employees thought it was odd that Durham's cart sat outside the bathroom for days. “They didn’t ask if Bessie was OK. They didn’t ask why hasn’t this cart moved in four days,” Hart said, per the AP. “They asked why aren’t the bathrooms being cleaned.”

Additionally, the family noted in their lawsuit that the tragic situation was worsened by the store's policy that the bathroom door be locked — a guideline put in place following a shooting at the mall earlier in 2022, according to WLTX.

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The suit says Durham's body was significantly decomposed by the time it was found, preventing the family from holding an open-casket funeral, per the AP and WLTX.

“This family should have had the opportunity to say goodbye the right way instead of having to sit at the funeral and smell the decomposing body of someone they cared about,” attorney Justin Bamberg said, the AP reported.

Belk did not immediately respond to PEOPLE's request for comment about the lawsuit.

After Durham's body was discovered last year, Belk told PEOPLE it was looking into the incident. "First and foremost, we send our deepest condolences to the family of the housekeeping associate who was employed by KBS, which provides cleaning services at our Columbiana Centre location," a spokesperson for the company said.

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"At this time, we are working with KBS to determine the details around what happened," the statement continued. "We have also made counselors available to Belk and KBS associates seeking support."

KBS also provided a statement to PEOPLE at the time, saying the company was assisting with the investigation. "KBS extends our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Bessie Durham," a company spokesperson stated.

"We have reached out to law enforcement to support their investigation and cooperate in any way we can," they added. "KBS is providing assistance and services to our other team members."

Durham's family is seeking unspecified punitive damages from Belk in their lawsuit, per the reports.

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