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Lawsuit against S.C. EMS, sheriff’s office in patient’s death heads to trial

Orangeburg County EMS and the sheriff’s office will go to court after a judge ruled earlier that Paul Tarashuk’s death did not fall under qualified immunity

By Gene Zaleski
The Times and Democrat

ORANGEBURG COUNTY, S.C. — A federal lawsuit that claims Orangeburg County agencies were at fault in the death of a mentally ill New Jersey man is scheduled to go to trial in September.

The lawsuit against Orangeburg County ( Orangeburg County Emergency Medical Services ) and the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office stems from Paul Tarashuk’s Sept. 9, 2018 death after being hit by a vehicle on Interstate 95.

Four departments — S.C. Highway Patrol, Santee Police Department, Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office and Orangeburg County Emergency Medical Services — responded to the initial 911 call about a man running naked on Interstate 95.

A deputy later dropped Tarashuk off at a gas station.

He was struck by a vehicle and killed a few hours later.

It was later determined he had been suffering from a schizophrenic episode.

The civil case is now set to go to trial in federal court in Columbia on or after Sept. 3.

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Over the past five years, the Tarashuk family has tried to get the case to trial but had to convince a judge that the individuals surrounding Tarashuk’s death did not fall under qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages.

The attorney for Tarashuk’s estate, Russell Burke, said the defendants each moved for “summary judgment” before the court, primarily on the question of whether the individual defendants had “qualified immunity” on some claims.

“The question for the court to decide was whether the constitutional right involved was sufficiently recognized at the time of the incident, whether an objectively reasonable person would have recognized that the right was being violated, and whether the defendants had a subjective knowledge (in this case) of the medical needs that were not being met,” Burke said. “In layman’s terms, the Court must find that the conduct ‘shocks the conscience.’”

Burke said the court ended up dismissing the claims against the S.C. Highway Patrol and the Santee Police, and some claims against Orangeburg County, related to EMS, and the sheriff’s office.

But some claims were allowed to advance, including Americans with Disabilities Act claims.

However, Burke said the court allowed an appeal of the qualified immunity issue before trial.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the constitutional right involved (deliberate indifference to medical needs) was sufficiently clear at the time, and the case should proceed to trial.

The Appeals Court judge wrote in his ruling filed on Nov. 8, 2022: “A reasonable EMT or paramedic would have known that their conduct was not only unlawful but also created a substantial risk of serious harm to both the detainee and those he may have encountered.

“Therefore, we conclude that at the time of the alleged violation, it was clearly established that a pretrial detainee has a right to be free from deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs and failing to ensure the detainee is transported to someplace where he can receive adequate medical care for those needs violates this constitutional right.”

Burke said the Court of Appeals ruling is important and potentially a precedent-setting decision.

“Normally these types of cases are just against law enforcement officers. Now EMS workers will have to be more aware that if they have been called to assess a person that possibly is undergoing a mental health crisis, they should take him or her to the hospital for a full medical evaluation — even if the police disagree,” he said.

Mother Cindy Tarashuk says the past six years have been difficult.

“Accepting that Paul is never coming back to us is a harsh reality that is still impossible to accept,” Tarashuk said. “I try to focus on Paul’s life and the fact that he was such an amazing person.”

“I do my best to replace the events of Paul’s death that play in my mind that are from the police body camera footage with all of the happy memories of Paul’s life,” Tarashuk continued. “I still feel that there is no one in OC South Carolina that will ever admit wrongdoing or apologize for what happened to Paulie.”

“They really don’t seem to care,” she said. “All that I can say is that I am grateful for all of the training that is taking place across the country that has come from Paul’s death. And I continue to pray that Paul’s death will save lives going forward.”

“I am willing to see this through to a trial and even the appeals that I know will follow no matter how long it takes,” Tarashuk said. “With that said, I have to trust totally in our legal representatives. For that reason, I will always lean on our legal team for the answers to this legal process. I will look to them and their guidance to know when it is time for this case to be over.”

Orangeburg County Attorney D’Anne Haydel declined to comment on the case except to note the parties tried mediation and it was unsuccessful.

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Haydel declined further comment on the matter, noting it is a legal matter that is exempt from disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Orangeburg County Council discussed the lawsuit behind closed doors during its June 17 regularly scheduled meeting.

The case has been investigated in the past.

In May 2019, the State Law Enforcement Division opened a criminal investigation into the incident at the request of 1st Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe.

Pascoe had called for a SLED investigation into Tarashuk’s death after he had learned that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had declined prosecution.

The investigation was closed by Pascoe after SLED conducted a review of the incident. It was determined that none of the conduct rose to the level of criminal misconduct in office.

The state’s 14th Circuit prosecutors also examined the facts of the case and determined the same.

In July 2019, the Tarashuk family filed a lawsuit against several individuals and agencies, including Orangeburg County, Orangeburg County EMS, the sheriff’s office, the town of Santee, the Santee Police Department and the South Carolina Highway Patrol. The lawsuit was eventually moved to federal court.

A paramedic involved in the incident was eventually fired and an emergency medical technician was punished. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control cited both.

In court filings, the sheriff’s office has denied the allegations in the lawsuit and specifically denied the allegation that law enforcement dropped Tarashuk off at a closed gas station. The sheriff’s office states the gas station was open when Tarashuk was dropped off.

It also denies that law enforcement had informed emergency personnel that Tarashuk would be taken to jail. The lawsuit alleges EMS assumed Tarashuk was being taken to jail.

Orangeburg County and Orangeburg County EMS also denied allegations the county was responsible for Tarashuk’s death.

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