Lawsuit Against SC EMS, Sheriff’s Office Over Homeless Man’s Death Goes to Court

By Gene Zaleski
“The Times” and “The Democrat”

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

The lawsuit against Orangeburg County Emergency Medical Services and the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office stems from the death of Paul Tarashuk, who was struck by a vehicle on Interstate 95 on Sept. 9, 2018.

Four departments — the South Carolina State Highway Patrol, Santee Police Department, Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office and Orangeburg County EMS — responded to the initial 911 call about a man running naked on Interstate 95.

A sheriff’s deputy later dropped Tarashuk off at a gas station.

He was hit by a vehicle and died a few hours later.

It was later determined that he was suffering from an episode of schizophrenia.

The civil case is scheduled to go to trial in a federal court in Colombia on or after September 3.

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For the past five years, Tarashuk’s family has tried to get the case to trial, but have had to convince a judge that those involved in Tarashuk’s death did not qualify for qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity protects public officials from civil liability for damages.

Tarashuk’s estate’s legal counsel, Russell Burke, said each of the defendants had filed a motion for “summary judgment” before the court, based primarily on the issue of whether the individual defendants had “qualified immunity” with respect to certain claims.

“The Court had to decide whether the constitutional right at issue was sufficiently recognized at the time of the incident, whether an objectively reasonable person would have recognized that the right had been violated, and whether the defendants had subjective knowledge (in this case) of medical needs that were not being met,” Burke said. “In simple terms, the Court must find that the conduct is ‘conscience-shocking.’”

Burke said the court ultimately dismissed claims against the South Carolina Highway Patrol and Santee police, as well as some claims against Orangeburg County related to the ambulance service and sheriff’s office.

However, some claims were allowed to proceed, including claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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

The Fourth Court of Appeal ruled that the constitutional law on the matter (deliberate disregard of medical needs) was sufficiently clear at the time and the case should go to trial.

The Court of Appeal judge wrote in his ruling, delivered on November 8, 2022: “A reasonable paramedic or emergency medical technician would have known that his conduct was not only unlawful but also posed a significant risk of serious harm to both the person detained and those he may have come into contact with.

“We therefore conclude that at the time of the alleged violation, it was clearly established that a pretrial detainee had a right to be free from deliberate disregard for his serious medical needs, and the failure to ensure that a pretrial detainee was transported to a place where he could receive adequate medical care to meet those needs violates this constitutional right.”

Burke said the Court of Appeal’s ruling is important and could become a precedent-setting decision.

“Typically, these types of cases only involve law enforcement officers. Now, EMS workers will have to be more aware that if they are called to evaluate someone who is possibly having a mental health crisis, they should take them to the hospital for a full medical evaluation — even if the police disagree,” he said.

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

“Accepting that Paul will never come back to us is a difficult reality that is still hard 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 are playing in my head, which are from the police body camera footage, with all the happy memories of Paul’s life,” Tarashuk continued. “I still believe there is no one in OC South Carolina who will ever admit guilt or apologize for what happened to Paul.”

“They really don’t seem to care,” she said. “All I can say is I’m grateful for all the training that’s going on around the country since Paul’s death. And I continue to pray that Paul’s death will save lives in the future.”

“I am prepared to take this to trial and even to the appeals that I know will happen, no matter how long it takes,” Tarashuk said. “With that in mind, I have to have complete trust in our legal representatives. For that reason, I will always rely on our legal team to respond to this legal process. I will look to them and their guidance to know when it is time to bring this matter to a close.”

Orangeburg County District Attorney D’Anne Haydel declined to comment on the matter, saying only that the parties had tried mediation but that it was unsuccessful.

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Haydel declined to comment further on the matter, noting it is a legal matter that is not subject to disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

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

The case has already been investigated in the past.

In May 2019, the State Law Enforcement Division initiated a criminal investigation into the incident at the request of District Attorney David Pascoe.

Pascoe requested a SLED investigation into Tarashuk’s death after learning that the U.S. attorney’s office declined to pursue criminal charges.

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

Prosecutors from the 14th District also reviewed the facts of the case and made the same decisions.

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 city of Santee, the Santee Police Department and the South Carolina Highway Patrol. The lawsuit ultimately went to federal court.

The paramedic involved in the incident was ultimately fired, and the emergency medical technician was disciplined. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control cited both.

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

He also denies that law enforcement told emergency personnel that Tarashuk would be taken to jail. The lawsuit claims that EMS assumed Tarashuk would be taken to jail.

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

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