Lawyer at SC firm swept up in Murdaugh scandal settles wrongful death suit involving bicyclist

ADAMS RUN — Over the past two years, Jenda Cotton has lost her son in a bicycle crash, lost her daughter to illness and sued an attorney in a prominent Beaufort law firm swept up in the Alex Murdaugh scandal.

Cotton just settled that lawsuit, a wrongful death case filed against attorney James H. Moss and his law firm, Moss Kuhn & Fleming. The firm owned the SUV he was driving when it struck and killed her 36-year-old son on a rural stretch of US Highway 17 a couple of miles south of Charleston’s city limits.

Kristopher Cotton was riding his bicycle from New York to the Florida Keys and pulling his dog, Ava, in a small trailer behind him when he was hit on Aug. 31, 2020. Ava, who was severely wounded, survived.

Investigators found that Kristopher was riding along the right lane’s white line, as required by law. They charged the attorney with driving too fast for conditions.

Jenda Cotton felt the charge was too lenient. But she was more angered by what Moss wrote in his statement to police that day. He wrote that Kristopher’s “tricycle” had pulled into his lane of traffic along the four-lane highway and that he couldn’t avoid the bicycle because two other cars drove in the left lane.

After a bicyclist is killed, a race begins to save his beloved dog, Ava

But video captured by a nearby restaurant’s security cameras showed no cars beside or behind Moss when the SUV struck Kris. Nor does it show Kris veering into the driver’s lane.

“His statement is completely false,” said Jenda Cotton’s attorney, Jeffrey Gerardi of the Joye Law Firm.

Moss did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did his attorneys.

Cotton filed suit against the lawyer and his firm, which typically sues others in cases involving wrongful death or injuries.

Recently, the firm has drawn more headlines and attention for the alleged actions of another one of its partners, Cory Fleming, who has been caught up in the case against disbarred attorney Alex Murdaugh.

Fleming faces 23 criminal charges for allegedly helping Murdaugh, 54, defraud insurance companies and Murdaugh’s deceased housekeeper’s family out of a multi-million dollar legal payout related to her death in a trip-and-fall incident. Fleming, Murdaugh’s longtime friend and college roommate, has been suspended from practicing law in South Carolina. He has denied wrongdoing and maintains Murdaugh misled him in the case.

Moss has not been named in any legal cases surrounding Fleming or Murdaugh.

Suspended Beaufort attorney indicted in Murdaugh fraud case

Last week, a judge approved a $1.25 million settlement in the wrongful death case Cotton filed against Moss, who is now 81. Of that, Moss will personally pay $250,000, Gerardi and Cotton said. Insurance will pay the rest. Moss admitted no wrongdoing in the settlement.

For Cotton, a 61-year-old cancer survivor whose health plummeted as she grieved for Kris and then, nine months later, for her daughter, the settlement brings financial relief.

“It’s over with now,” she said.

The crash

On a sunny day in late August 2020, just before 2 pm, Kris was riding his burgundy bicycle along Highway 17 in Adams Run, a stretch where strip malls give way to lush country expanses.

Ava rode on the trailer, which measured 2 feet, 4 inches wide, a little red awning shielding her from the summer sun. Bundled behind her, Kris carried camping gear, clothes and food. The duo had been cruising down the coast for weeks, meeting dozens of people fascinated by this adventurous man and his dog.

Kristopher Cotton pulled his dog, Ava, in his little trailer attached to his bicycle (copy)

Kristopher Cotton pulled his dog, Ava, in a cart attached to his bicycle when an SUV struck them in 2020, killing Cotton. Files/Provided

Kris pedaled south, dry pavement beneath him. Grass crept to the edge of the right lane’s white line, high-speed traffic whizzing by him. There was no bike lane, although Charleston Moves had launched a petition to add one along the stretch.

Across the street, at Station 17 Local Grill, a security camera captured what happened next.

As Kris pedaled, several cars passed him without incident, including a compact car in the left lane. Roughly a half-dozen car lengths behind it, a white Chevy Suburban approached next.

Kris cruised down a straightaway, passed a bank of grass, then reached the edge of a grove of trees. When the Suburban overtook him, the driver did not appear to brake or shift into the left lane.

The SUV’s right side bounced up with impact, which spewed a plume of metal-and-wood destruction onto the road and across the grass.

Kris was thrown toward the trees, gravely wounded. He died at the scene.

Ava survived. She required round-the-clock, intensive care.

An incident report called Moss “the sole contributor” to the crash. Later, Charleston County Sheriff’s Office investigators revisited the case to see if it warranted additional charges beyond the traffic violation.

But additional charges would require proving Moss drove with reckless disregard, the lead investigator later wrote to Jenda Cotton. This could include things like driving under the influence, driving recklessly or driving under suspension — none of which the investigators found applied.

Moss’ driving record was clear. He was coherent, though visibly shaken, at the scene. He was coming from a lunch visit with his daughter at a fast-food restaurant that didn’t serve alcohol.

“We do not feel that Mr. Moss did anything on purpose to make this collision occur,” an investigator wrote in an April 2021 follow-up report.

Kris’ family was grateful for the added look. But the idea that Kris’ life was worth only the $232 fine from a ticket for driving too fast “really put a knife in me and twisted it,” Jenda Cotton said.

In October 2020, she filed the wrongful death suit on behalf of her son’s estate.

The complaint alleged that Moss was negligent and caused Kris’ death due to “driving a motor vehicle in such a manner as to indicate a willful, wanton, reckless, grossly negligent, and negligent disregard for the safety of others,” the filing says.

Among other allegations, it accused Moss of driving too fast, not keeping a proper lookout and failing to yield or use due care. The lawsuit sought actual and punitive damages.

“I want him to know that he hurt this family immensely,” Jenda Cotton said.

In their answer, Moss’ attorneys denied any wrongdoing.

Leaving home

More than 1,000 miles north of Charleston, Kris and Jenda Cotton lived in Saranac Lake, a village in upstate New York near the snow-draped Adirondack mountains and sparkling lakes. Kris loved to ride motorcycles, jump from airplanes, snowboard and bicycle across the country.

He also loved his dog, Ava.

Kristopher Cotton and his dog, Ava (copy)

Kristopher Cotton’s mother attached this photograph of him with Ava onto a marker she placed at the spot where he was killed riding his bicycle on Savannah Highway. Files/Provided

Seven years before his death, while driving his motorcycle in Arizona, he had spotted her in a box on the side of a road. Cupping the tiny brown puppy in his palm, he set her into his backpack and continued on.

She had been his road dog since, sleeping in tents with him and riding in the trailer behind his bicycle.

Jenda Cotton last saw them about two months before he reached Charleston. Kris had just celebrated his 36th birthday, then waited for the weather to warm before heading to the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile biking route along the Atlantic Coast. Cotton bid him farewell for his latest adventure.

As Kris pedaled toward a bridge at Lake Champlain, pulling Ava on her trailer, Cotton called out through tears: If Ava needed anything, if she wanted to come home at any point, just let her know.

“Granny will come and get you!”

Three months later, Cotton and her daughter, Jessica LaFever, drove 17 hours south to Charleston to collect his ashes and bring Ava home.

The settlement

After the loss of her son, Cotton endured with the love and help of her family, especially Jessica.

But then, nine months after Kris’ death, Jessica died. The wife and mother of five was only 38 years old but had suffered chronic health problems and died battling pneumonia.

On top of the grief, Jenda Cotton worked hard to pay her bills. She described her family as working “hand to mouth.”

Ava lands in NY (copy)

After Kristopher Cotton’s death in 2020, his sister, Jessica LaFever (left), and his mother, Jenda Cotton, took his dog Ava home with them to Upstate New York. File/Scott Guy/Provided

The idea of ​​going to trial over the lawsuit overwhelmed her. She wasn’t even sure her car would make it from New York to Charleston.

“I was just climbing out of a depression from Kris, then jumped into Jess,” Cotton said. “It was just total devastation.”

On July 19, a judge approved the settlement agreement.

The money Cotton will receive paying after attorney’s fees will allow her to pay off a $50,000 mortgage, reimburse family who helped her make ends meet and not worry about finding work while she struggles to regain her health.

Through it all, her constant companion has been Ava, who recovered from her physical wounds after the crash.

“She’s amazing,” Cotton said. “She’s my girl. She is the best girl in the whole world.”

Yet, even today, almost two years after his death, Ava still won’t go into the bedroom she shared with Kris. Cotton believes Ava knows that Kris isn’t coming home.

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