OC Seeks Dismissal Of $1M Civil Suit Over Beach Death

OC Seeks Dismissal Of $1M Civil Suit Over Beach Death
The scene on 2nd Street is pictured July 31, 2017. Submitted Photo

OCEAN CITY – The Town of Ocean City filed a formal motion to dismiss the $1 million civil suit brought by the family of a woman who was found deceased and buried on the beach in July 2017.

The suit was filed by the decedent’s mother, Gayla Lutyk, through her attorneys in July, just one week from the two-year anniversary of the tragic incident on July 31, 2017. The negligence suit seeks $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. The victim was buried in the sand with just a forearm and hand exposed.

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.

OCPD detectives determined 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.

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. OCPD Chief Ross 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 her 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.

However, the $1 million civil suit filed by the decedent’s family in July asserts the town was negligent for a variety of reasons, including that 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. However, a city ordinance prohibits being on the beach between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

In addition, and perhaps most importantly, the complaint filed in July asserts the town was negligent in that the heavy tractors and beach cleaning equipment likely caused the sand to collapse on the victim as she lied in the hole. 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.”

In its formal answer filed this week, the town, through its attorney, systematically denied the allegations paragraph by paragraph. The formal answer points out the town does invite visitors to use the beach during the hours spelled out in the ordinance, but asserts the victim was on the beach during prohibited times.

“The defendant admits that, generally speaking, its residents and visitors are permitted to enjoy the beaches of Ocean City at certain times of the day, but otherwise denies the allegations,” the answer to the complaint reads. “The defendant asserts the assumption of risk. The defendant asserts the defense of contributory negligence.”

The answer filed this week seeks a dismissal of the case, pointing out the decedent at least shares some culpability in the tragic incident.

“The defendant owed no duty to the decedent, who was trespassing and violating applicable law by being on the beach at the time of the events alleged in the complaint,” the answer reads.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.