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Locals looking for legislative answers

The Lumberyard will celebrate it’s first anniversary in mid-April. The small pub, which serves craft beer and wine and hosts acoustic performers and trivia and open-mic nights, but the first 11 months has been fraught with unexpected challenges.

South Carolina’s stringent laws regarding liability insurance is forcing the hands of business owners who are paying high insurance premiums just to keep the doors open.

We kind of looked into insurance, but really didn’t know what it would be like until we started getting quotes,” said Stacey Michaels, who owns and operates The Lumberyard along with her husband, Charlie.

According to the state statute, which the General Assembly put on the books in 2019, any establishment is held totally responsible for any accident or injury that occurs that is at all related to an establishment, regardless of their level of involvement beforehand.

Had the Michaels truly known the challenge presented by skyrocketing insurance costs, they may have reconsidered opening a pub in a small college town.

Local small venue owners like the Michaels at The Lumberyard, Wes Meetze at Palmetto Brothers Dispensary in Laurens and Terry Shifferly of the Rack-n-Roll sports bar in Laurens have attended meetings and are working with others across the state in an effort to lobby the General Assembly for some relief.

They say the stakes are high not only for the venue owners, but for small towns such as Laurens and Clinton which have been hungry to attract nightlife to their downtown areas.

The exact point is those legislatures should come into our bar on a Friday night and see what it’s done for the commuity versus going to some – as they call them ‘dive bars’ in Columbia that are serving $1 beers and $2 shots,” Charlie Michaels said. “It’s a shame that the legislators don’t really understand how (the law) affects the community versus trying to pad lawyers’ pockets.”

The Greenville County Chamber of Commerce issued a blanket statement in January, calling on the General Assembly to alter course in a way that can help business owners afford insurance premiums.

Every small business in South Carolina is one lawsuit away from going out of business because we have a system where a business might be 1% at fault but could he held 100% financially liable,” the statement read. “Legislation that will solve both issues was filed last session by (S.C. Senate President Thomas Alexander, R-Oconee) and supported by nearly every Republican leader in the state Senate. The message from businesses across the Upstate is clear: The General Assembly must act quickly in 2024 to address the unfair legal liability burden and the higher costs to business that have followed years of inaction.”

Laurens County Chamber of Commerce CEO Amanda Munyan echoed the Greenville Chamber’s support for small business owners.

The Laurens County Chamber of Commerce is a partner of the Upstate Chamber Coalition (UCC), with government relations professionals in Columbia working closely with the General Assembly,” Munyan said. “The UCC is focused on creating jobs, raising per capita income, and improving our region’s incredible quality of life. The cost of liquor liability has been a major concern and is at the top of the legislative agenda for 2024. We understand the impact of this issue and will continue to work with the UCC to support the livelihood and success of our local businesses.”

But so far, Shifferly has been unimpressed with the General Assembly’s proposed solutions to the problem.

He said instead of addressing tort reform, legislators are offering small discounts for food service or for closing earlier, and those solutions seemed aimed more toward restaurants, not true entertainment venues and pubs.

So, I could close at 8 p.m. and reduce my liability insurance, but that’s not going to help me,” Shifferly said. “It’s almost like they want me to have an empty building with nothing going on in it.

Every bar throughout the world – they’re going to have a band; they’re going to have karaoke or some time of entertainment. Otherwise, why are you in the business?”

Shifferly said he has watched his liability insurance double and then double again over the past four-plus years, and those increases have threatened his business.

Palmetto Brothers Dispensary has become a fixture and popular destination for locals and visitors alike since its arrival on the Laurens Historic Square in 2021.

But the increased costs of insurance has caused owner Wes Meetze to scale back on entertainment costs for local musicians to save money, he said in a social media post. Meetze has also returned to his law practice and was recently hired as attorney for Laurens County.

Palmetto Brothers has plans to move from the square to a new venue at Harper Commons, located a few hundred yards from the square on Harper Street in Laurens. The venue will be larger, but faces the same “existential threats” as Palmetto Brothers and other local venues do now.

The development of Harper Commons stands as a beacon of hope and resilience against this backdrop,” a Palmetto Brothers social media post announcing the upcoming move read. “It underscores the urgent need for legislative action to address these outdated laws. As we celebrate this new beginning, we also call upon the South Carolina state legislature to take immediate action to reform these laws. The survival of our small businesses, the preservation of our community hubs, and the future of our local culture depend on it.”

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