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HCSO, RPD deny wrongdoing after 16-year-old girl's father files lawsuit

Attorneys for both the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Rogersville Police Department have denied any wrongdoing on the part of their departments with regard to a high-speed chase that ended with a young couple being shot and seriously wounded last November.

Both departments recently submitted an answer to a federal “excessive force” lawsuit filed last month by the father of a 16-year-old girl who was shot along with the 20-year-old male driver at the conclusion of the Nov. 3 chase.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit were the RPD and its Chief Doug Nelson; the HCSO and Sheriff Roger Christian; and RPD Officer Kenneth Ferguson and HCSO Deputy Scott Stewart who reportedly fired on the suspect vehicle.

According to the police version of events, Rogersville police allegedly observed the 20-year-old driver, Joseph Fortenberry, driving in “a reckless and dangerous manner in an apparent attempt to avoid observation by the officer” and attempted to stop the vehicle, at which time Fortenberry fled. It turned out Fortenberry allegedly had pending arrest warrants from Hamblen County and was driving on a suspended license.

Rogersville police were joined in the pursuit by sheriff’s deputies, and they allegedly chased Fortenberry to a dead-end cul-de-sac off of Guntown Road.

Police allege that while blocked in the cul-de-sac officers approached the vehicle on foot, at which time Fortenberry allegedly accelerated toward Ferguson. Police alleged that Ferguson’s life was in danger and that’s what police say prompted Ferguson and Stewart to open fire.

Fortenberry received a gunshot wound to the chest while the 16-year-old girl reportedly was shot on the top of her head and in the shoulder.

The federal lawsuit filed by the girl’s father alleges excessive force was used in the arrest.

The lawsuit claims that as the pursuit was concluding Fortenberry’s vehicle was struck by a patrol car, causing it to spin 180 degrees, at which time another patrol car struck Fortenberry’s vehicle eliminating any direction of travel. The lawsuit also claims the vehicle was “without locomotion” at that time.

“Both the officer approaching from the vehicle directly in front of the Fortenberry vehicle and the officer approaching from the side/rear cruiser immediately exited their respective cars and opened fire without sounding their identity and without commanding the victims to put their hands up and exit the Fortenberry car,” alleges Kingsport attorney Rob Starnes who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit further alleges, “Defendant Ferguson and Defendant Stewart, the shooters, failed to use or exhaust all other reasonable and less restrictive means of seizing the victims. (The girl) avers that both she and her driver where unarmed and with their hands visible and up in the air at the time of the shooting.”

The lawsuit further alleges that “Ferguson and Stewart acted with evil motive in shooting two unarmed teenagers.” No dollar amount was specified in the lawsuit.

The RPD answer filed by the Johnson City law firm of Herron and Booze denies that Fortenberry’s vehicle was “without locomotion”; denies that the two occupants had their hands up; and denies that the officers fired without good reason.

The RPD answer states, “As an affirmative defense these defendants assert the doctrine of comparative fault and negligence as to the plaintiff, and assert that she contributed to the injuries or damages that she claims to have suffered to the extent that she entered a vehicle operated by a person known to her to have an outstanding warrant, and to the extent she failed to exit the vehicle when she had an opportunity.”

As individuals both Nelson and Christian have filed motions to be dismissed from the lawsuit. Last week the plaintiffs asked for a continuance to consider a response to the motions for dismissal.

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Farmer wins lawsuit against city

For years, Riverton farmer Michael Giolas battled his hometown to stop what he claims is an effort to push out agriculture in favor of development.

    In suits against Riverton, Giolas alleged the city failed to enforce its ordinances by letting construction crews dump waste and dirt on his crops or clean cement trucks so nearby that runoff water damaged his crops. Giolas, a hay farmer who leases his land, also claimed the municipality limited his access through the installation of curbs and gutters to his land.
    Last year, a jury in 3rd District Court found Riverton liable for more than $200,000 in damages. On Dec. 31, Judge Joseph Fratto signed a final judgment awarding Giolas a total of $233,807.36, which included his costs in the legal fight.

    "As far as I know, this is the first time the city has been held to account for its development practices," Dale Gardiner, Giolas' attorney, said earlier this month. "Farmers don't usually win against cities."

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A Seattle strip club has filed a lawsuit against the shoreline police department as a result of mass arrests by the department that the clubs owners and staff claim are unconstitutional. The club’s owner as well as the management and staff seek unspecified damages according to the lawsuit files filed this week in U.S. District Court in Seattle

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Taser Lawsuit settled for $90,000

The city of Lakewood has settled a lawsuit brought by a man who said police officers shot him with a stun gun and roughed him up because he refused to submit to medical aid after suffering an epileptic seizure.

William Grider and his wife, Kathy, agreed to drop their personal injury suit against the city, the Police Department, Chief Larry Saunders and four police officers in exchange for $90,000 and the city’s promise to implement a new policy dictating when officers can use Tasers on people.

City officials signed the settlement agreement last month.

The city admitted no wrongdoing, and police officials said last week that their officers acted appropriately during their interaction with Grider.

“The decision on how to best settle the matter of the lawsuit was made by our insurance provider,” Lakewood police spokesman Lt. Dave Guttu said in an e-mail. “We accept their decision without any fault on our part.”

Guttu also said the Taser policy changes cited in the settlement were not a direct result of the Griders’ legal action against the city.

The Griders filed a $300,000 claim against the city in May 2007, then sued in September in Pierce County Superior Court. The case later was moved to U.S. District Court at the request of city attorneys, who argued the Griders’ complaints concerned constitutional issues better heard in federal court.

Police officials had been working on an update to the department’s rules on stun guns for nearly a year before the Griders filed their claim, Guttu said.

The department’s revised policy on the use of Tasers – which went into effect Jan. 1 – now requires officers to consider whether someone might suffer from a medical condition like multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy or epilepsy before they shock them with stun guns.

“In such cases, the need to stop the behavior should clearly justify the potential for additional risks,” the policy states.

The previous policy warned officers only against using Tasers on pregnant women.

The Griders did not respond to a request for an interview, but their attorney, Robert Bryan, said the couple is pleased the city changed its policy.

Bryan said Lakewood’s rules – modeled on language from other jurisdictions and that recommended by the Epilepsy Foundation – now are among the most comprehensive in the state.

“The Griders feel they can continue living in the community without fear that the next response will be a violent one,” the attorney said last week. “The city was very responsive, to its credit.”

The lawsuit stemmed from a Sept. 18, 2005, incident at a Lakewood auto parts store where Grider worked as a clerk.

Grider, then 63, suffered an epileptic-type seizure and passed out, according to his lawsuit.

A co-worker called 911, and an emergency medical crew was dispatched to the store to tend to Grider, who has a history of seizures, according to his lawsuit and police reports documenting the incident.

At some point, the medical crew called for assistance from Lakewood police, saying Grider had come to and was acting in an aggressive and threatening manner, Officer Rey Punzalan wrote in his report of the incident.

Lakewood city attorneys redacted parts of the report, citing exemptions to Washington’s public records laws, including those concerning medical privacy.

“Upon my arrival, Grider was seated and compliant,” Punzalan wrote. “Suddenly, Grider began to scream profanities at EMS personnel.”

At one point, Grider – his teeth gritted and his hands balled into fists – started to walk toward Punzalan, according to the officer’s report.

The officer told Grider to be seated and calm down. Grider sat back down, but he remained angry, according to Punzalan’s report.

Officer Oscar Maysonet arrived on scene about this time, according to both his and Punzalan’s reports.

“When I arrived, Officer Punzalan was speaking with Grider, who was refusing medical aid,” Maysonet said. “Grider had a blank look, steering (sic) into the air, on his face.”

Maysonet reported that Punzalan kept asking Grider to let medical personnel take a look at him, but Grider kept refusing.

Grider claimed in his lawsuit that he told the medical crew he had seizures occasionally “from which he recovered in short periods of time without problems and for which medical care was not indicated.”

He also told them he didn’t need or want to go to the hospital and had made arrangements to get a ride home, according to his lawsuit.

The police officers were getting different information.

“Fire department personnel told us they have dealt with Grider before, and he got very violent that time as well,” Maysonet wrote in his report. “They also told us he had to get medical help.”

Hostile behavior is not unusual from someone recovering from a seizure, according to a report produced by the Epilepsy Foundation titled “Inappropriate Response to Seizures.”

“It is during this period, which may last for an hour or more, that one may become belligerent or aggressive, especially when approached or threatened,” according to the report. “Accordingly, restraint of persons soon after a seizure may exacerbate or precipitate combativeness – the opposite of the intended result.”

At one point during the encounter, Punzalan and Maysonet insisted that Grider see a doctor, according to their reports. He again refused and said, “Arrest me. Shoot me,” Punzalan wrote.

Maysonet reported that he and Punzalan then moved in to grab Grider, who “pulled away and started resisting.”

It was then, Punzalan said, that he pulled out his Taser – a stun gun capable of delivering a shock of 50,000 volts.

“Grider grabbed the Taser, stating, ‘shoot me, shoot me,’” Punzalan reported.

The officer wrote that he applied two jolts to Grider’s lower back. Grider said one of the jolts was delivered to his left ear.

“Grider continued to resist, and I delivered a right jab punch to his face, striking him on the right side of the face,” Punzalan wrote.

The blow knocked the 5-foot-8, 158-pound Grider to the ground, the officer continued.

He and Maysonet then moved in to handcuff Grider.

“I placed my knee on the back of the neck and grabbed his left arm to handcuff him,” Maysonet reported.

The Epilepsy Foundation warns against such maneuvers on people who suffer seizures, saying the pressure on their backs coupled with the agitation of fighting can be deadly.

The two officers managed to get Grider cuffed, and he was taken to the hospital. Photographs in city’s files on the case show Grider lying on a gurney, blood oozing from his left ear. Maysonet reported that Grider might have cut his ear when he fell to the floor.

Police spokesman Guttu said Punzalan and Maysonet acted with department policy in effect at the time when they confronted Grider. That policy allowed officers to use a Taser or other less-than-lethal force against a subject who resisted arrest or refused to comply with officers’ orders.

“We fully support the named officers’ actions in the Taser application in the Grider case,” he wrote in his e-mail.

In his lawsuit, Grider claimed he suffered “grievous injuries including the electrical shocking and laceration of the left ear, two rib fractures, a left chest wall contusion, wrist and wrist nerve damage, multiple other contusions, emotional damage and a broken watch.”

Bryan said Grider since has recovered. He was not charged with a crime in the incident.

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