OCEAN CITY — The family of a Texas woman who was found deceased and buried in the sand on the beach at 2nd Street this week filed a $1 million negligent death suit against the town of Ocean City asserting the town’s beach cleaning equipment drove over her “not once but twice” as she laid in a hole.
The suit was filed by the decedent’s mother, Gayla Lutyk, through her attorneys on Wednesday, just one week from the two-year anniversary of the tragic incident on July 31, 2017. The negligence suit names the town of Ocean City, care of the Mayor and Council, as the defendant and is seeking $1 million in compensatory damages.
On July 31, 2017, the Ocean City Public Works Department’s beach cleaning crews were completing their overnight duties between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. when they discovered a deceased woman on the beach at 2nd Street later identified as Ashley O’Connor, 30, of Plano, Texas. According to a reliable source at the time, the victim was buried in the sand with just a forearm and hand exposed. The victim was also wearing a temporary paper wristband often used at bars and nightclubs for identifying of-age patrons.
The Ocean City Police Department (OCPD) Forensics Unit, with assistance from Maryland State Police crime scene technicians, processed the scene and removed the victim’s body from the sand around 4:15 p.m. that afternoon, or several hours after it was first discovered. The victim was evaluated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, who determined the cause of death was accidental and the manner of death was asphyxia due to suffocation.
After an exhaustive investigation, OCPD detectives determined that around 2 a.m. on July 31, O’Connor walked alone onto the beach in the area of 2nd Street and shortly thereafter fell into or sat in a hole roughly three- to four-feet deep made by a person or persons unknown. Around 6:30 a.m., she was discovered buried in the sand. Again, the hole was about three- to four-feet deep and about six feet long from north to south and about four feet wide.
O’Connor had been vacationing in Ocean City with her parents and the family members had been at a Boardwalk establishment. At some point, O’Connor’s mother walked back to their lodgings on the Boardwalk nearby and the victim a short time later walked down the Boardwalk and onto the beach around 2nd Street. Buzzuro said video surveillance showed O’Connor walking on the Boardwalk and then briefly on the beach, but there was no available video evidence of her falling into or sitting in the large hole.
At some point after O’Connor ended up in the hole, the dry sand surrounding it collapsed for reasons unknown, covering the victim. The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled the death to be accidental caused by asphyxia due to suffocation. It was not known after the incident, nor will it ever likely be known, how the hole collapsed around O’Connor.
During a press conference three weeks after the incident, Ocean City Police Department Chief Ross Buzzuro alluded to the possibility of the large machinery including the tractors that sweep the beach each night and smooth the sand for beachgoers the following morning could have contributed to the collapse, which had been a cause for speculation since the tragic incident three weeks earlier.
“We can’t discount that fact there were beach tractors in the area,” said Buzzuro. “That equipment is very heavy and causes a lot of vibration.”
Buzzuro at that time said the OCPD detectives working the case utilized all possible resources to determine what might have caused the hole to collapse around O’Connor and could not rule out the possibility the beach cleaning equipment might have contributed.
“We had a lot of assistance from the city’s engineering department with the nuances of sand and it doesn’t take much to collapse,” he said. “There is a good possibility they were working over and around that hole.”
However, the $1 million suit filed by the decedent’s mother on Wednesday asserts the town’s beach cleaning equipment was the proximate cause of the O’Connor’s death.
“The decedent, Ashley O’Connor, died on July 31, 2017, after suffering severe pre-death pain, injuries and extreme anguish and ultimately death by asphyxiation as a result of being entrapped and buried alive by the defendant and it agents, servants and employees acting within the scope of their agency, service and employment and thus plaintiff is entitled to damages pursuant to Maryland’s survival action law,” the complaint reads. “Plaintiff’s action arises from the July 31, 2017 occurrence on or at the Ocean City beach at or near 2nd Street wherein Ashley O’Connor was entrapped and buried alive by the defendant and otherwise harmed and damaged as a result of her injuries and the ensuing horrific death, caused by and sustained due to the negligent, grossly negligent, reckless and/or willful and wanton conduct of the defendant.”
The complaint also asserts the town was negligent because it invites visitors to use the beach at all times, night and day, and does not post warnings about potential holes and heavy equipment cleaning the sand overnight.
“The defendant Ocean City by express or implied invitation induces and causes visitors to use the beaches day and evening and derives great benefit and income from its encouraging of visitors to use its beaches,” the complaint reads. “The defendant knew, allowed, acquiesced and encouraged the use of its beaches in the evening, including not limiting, monitoring, blocking or barricading access to its beaches at night and particularly not limiting, monitoring, blocking or barricading access to those sections of the beaches which were set to have, and then did have, dangerous equipment operations performed upon them.”
In perhaps its strongest language, the complaint asserts the town’s beach cleaning heavy equipment operators should have seen O’Connor lying in the hole but instead, drove the heavy drag over her not once, but multiple times.
“During the night of July 31, 2017, the defendant’s agents failed to see what was or should have been plainly visible, namely the decedent Ashley O’Connor, in a hole on the beach, failed to control their equipment including but not limited to a tractor pulling a long, heavy drag, failed to exercise due diligence in general and with reckless or willful wanton disregard of human life, particularly given the awareness of visitors and a large number of holes on the beach on the night in question, yet drove over or drove the drag over Ashley O’Connor not once, but multiple times, entrapping her, failing to look into the hole in which Ashley O’Connor was located.”
Interestingly, the complaint suggests no culpability for the decedent at all, despite the fact she was lying on a hole on the beach at 2 a.m. in the morning, stating, “the aforesaid conduct was the proximate cause of the decedent Ashley O’Connor’s horrific and painful death without any negligence or fault on the part of the decedent contributing hereto.”