Beaufort man takes fight for records to Appeals Court

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comSeptember 22, 2012 

Nearly seven years after the death of his son in a car crash on Hunting Island, a Beaufort man continues to battle state and Beaufort County officials for emails, handwritten notes and other records related to their investigation of the wreck.

L. Paul Trask Jr. of Beaufort and his attorneys are scheduled to appear Oct. 2 before the S.C. Court of Appeals. They are appealing a Circuit Court decision to dismiss a lawsuit he filed in 2007 that accused state and local officials of violating the state's open-records law.

Trask alleged that then-Beaufort County Deputy Coroner Curt Copeland, who died in 2010, and members of the S.C. Highway Patrol and Beaufort County Sheriff's Office did not comply or only partially complied with more than 15 requests he filed seeking documents related to the death of his son, L. Paul Trask III, in November 2005.

Trask III died after he lost control of an SUV he was driving on U.S. 21 on Hunting Island. He veered off the road and crashed into trees, and the SUV burst into flames, according to Highway Patrol records.

His father sought copies of investigators' handwritten notes, cellphone records, emails between Copeland and other law enforcement officials, toxicology reports, and other documents related to the crash, according to court records.

County officials and the Highway Patrol claimed such records, like cellphone logs, were exempt from the freedom-of-information law, and they were unable to produce some e-mails because they had already been deleted, court records show.

Trask also alleged that county and state officials ignored some of his requests, including one that he be provided a list of all deputy coroners.

Circuit Court Judge Carmen Mullen dismissed the lawsuit in 2009, in part because Trask failed to file his legal complaint within a year of the alleged violation, as required by state law.

Mullen also ruled that officials fulfilled their legal obligations under the Freedom of Information Act and did not overcharge Trask for copies of police reports and other documents, as the lawsuit also alleged.

Attorneys for Trask twice asked Mullen to reconsider her ruling and were twice rebuffed, most recently in March 2010, court records show. They appealed in November 2010.

Attorney Robert Achurch of Beaufort, part of the legal team representing the county and county officials, declined to comment on the appeal or the upcoming hearing.

Attempts this week to reach Trask's attorney, Stephen Groves of Charleston, were unsuccessful.

The records lawsuit is one of three Trask filed following the death of his son, who was a Citadel cadet.

Trask received a $750,000 settlement in a wrongful-death lawsuit against Xpress Lane, the owner of the store that sold his son two, 24-ounce cans of beer hours before his death without verifying his age and while he already was intoxicated, according to state court records. Trask III was 20 years old when he died.

Last year, the Court of Appeals rejected a lawsuit filed by Trask against Copeland, whom Trask accused of illegally cremating his son at the funeral home that Copeland owned at the time, and for failing to order an autopsy and toxicology report as required by law.

The suit alleged those conditions prevented Trask from receiving more in damages from his lawsuit against the store.

The Appeals 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 its ruling.

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.

Related content:

SC appeals court rejects negligence claim against former coroner, March 4, 2011

Coroner sued for negligence in Trask crash investigation, June 29, 2007

Citadel cadet on break dies in U.S. 21 wreck, November 23, 2005

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