SC appeals court rejects negligence claim against former coroner

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SC appeals court rejects negligence claim against former coroner

From staff reports
Published Friday, March 4, 2011   |  596 Words  |  

The S.C. Court of Appeals has rejected a claim against a former Beaufort County coroner by Beaufort man who alleges negligence in the investigation of his son's death.

The court upheld a Circuit Court ruling that the coroner's actions were inappropriate, but "the law does not provide a remedy for this conduct in the form of civil damages," according to the Appeals Court ruling filed Wednesday.

L. Paul Trask Jr. of Beaufort sued Coroner Curt Copeland, now deceased, and the county. He alleges his son, who died in a car crash after he had been drinking, was cremated illegally by the funeral service Copeland owned at the time, and an autopsy and toxicology report were not performed as required by law.

The suit alleged those conditions prevented Trask from receiving more in damages from a lawsuit against the store that sold beer to his 20-year-old son, Leith Paul Trask III, who died after he crashed into a tree Nov. 22, 2005, on Hunting Island.

Trask received a $750,000 settlement from a wrongful-death lawsuit against Xpress Lane, the owner of the store that sold his son two 24-ounce cans of beer without verifying his age and while he already was intoxicated, the Appeals Court ruling says.

Paul Trask Jr. later testified that "we were only able to negotiate a very partial settlement in the Xpress Lane case because we had no definitive toxicology reports to prove ... that Paul was intoxicated," according to the ruling.

Trask's lawsuit seeks damages for the reduced settlement value of the Xpress suit and for emotional harm.

The Appeals Court stated that, under state law, a coroner is immune from being sued for the infliction of emotional harm and that the purpose of the state law governing autopsies and toxicology reports is "neither to provide evidence for a civil lawsuit nor to ensure that the family of a deceased person is given its desired level of detail regarding the cause of death."

The ruling, however, says, "This case is troubling because Copeland did violate at least some of the statutes and conducted himself in a manner we believe is inappropriate."

According to the ruling, Copeland went to the accident scene soon after the crash. Paul Trask III's body was burned beyond recognition. After he learned the car was owned by the Trasks, Copeland drove to the family's home. Once relatives determined Paul Trask III was the only family member not at home, they realized he had been the driver.

According to the ruling, Mrs. Trask asked Copeland whether there would be an autopsy. Copeland responded it was not needed because "the cause of death is obvious."

A few months later, the Trasks asked Copeland how badly their son's body was burned, and he responded that "you couldn't tell if the body was black, white or Mexican," the ruling said.

Copeland later talked to the family about funeral arrangements and they said they wanted him to be cremated. They signed the cremation authorization form sometime between noon and 1 p.m., but Copeland told them to write the time as 9:15 a.m., the ruling said. He was cremated the next day.

"In this case, much of the coroner's conduct is troubling," according to the ruling, "but none of it is actionable."

Copeland died at age 65 on Dec. 4. He was Beaufort County coroner for 28 years and owned Copeland Funeral Home and Coastal Cremation Services, which he sold in 2008.