The mother of a Utah man left “irreparably damaged” when he was hit and dragged by a car last December filed a lawsuit Tuesday against West Valley City police, alleging an officer shocked her son with a Taser, then ordered him to stay still on the dark street before impact.
The complaint argues that officers needlessly endangered Atonio Sivatia and states that it will cost more than $20 million to pay for the 24/7 care that he will now need for the rest of his life.
In a text message Tuesday, West Valley City police spokesperson Roxanne Vainuku stated: “We are aware of a lawsuit filed in this case and will begin the process of reviewing it.”
‘Do not move’
Sivatia, now 22, was struck shortly after someone called police early Dec. 6, 2020, to report a man yelling and pounding on the walls of an apartment complex near 4000 South and Redwood Road, the complaint states. West Valley City officer Ammon Fox arrived to find Sivatia, who had broken out a window at the complex. A witness later told police that Sivatia had tried to take his car.
Attorney Robert Sykes, who is representing Sivatia’s mother, said at a Tuesday news conference that Sivatia thought the car in question was an Uber that he had requested.
When Sivatia saw Fox, Sivatia ran toward Redwood Road — a major, seven-lane thoroughfare — and Fox chased after him, firing his Taser, the complaint states. The prongs hit Sivatia from behind as he was crossing the road. Stunned, he fell on his back.
According to a police report, officers thought Sivatia was suicidal and intentionally trying to get hit by cars, but Sykes said that was not true. Sivatia’s mother noted that he had been drinking at a friend’s house that night, but said he was not a regular drinker.
After Sivatia fell down, he told Fox, “I’m sorry,” the complaint states. Fox then told Sivatia to stay in the road, the complaint alleges.
“I’ve got traffic stopped, subject is down,” Fox can be heard saying on body camera footage that Sykes released Tuesday. But cars continue to drive by the scene as Fox speaks into his radio, the footage shows.
“Fox could have easily, at any time, directed Atonio to move onto the shoulder of the road,” the complaint argues. “Fox was aware of the grave danger because he could see multiple vehicles coming toward the point where Atonio lay, some of them barely missing Atonio.”
In the continued footage, Fox can be heard telling Sivatia, “Do not move or I will hit you again.” When Fox instructs Sivatia to keep his hands still, Sivatia replies, “Yes, sir.”
The complaint states another officer, James Williams, arrived shortly after, then conferred with Fox about arresting Sivatia.
As Williams walked toward Sivatia, a white sedan that had briefly stopped suddenly moved forward, trapping Sivatia underneath the car, then dragging him about 15 feet before the vehicle got stuck on Sivatia’s body, the complaint states. The car also hit Fox. Police reports state that the officer was “bruised but otherwise uninjured.”
The driver told police she was a nurse and performed CPR on Sivatia before medics arrived. She told officers she had been drinking. She wasn’t cited that night but was charged months later with a third-degree felony count of DUI. Charging documents state her blood alcohol content was 0.14, nearly three times the legal limit in Utah.
Sivatia survived but suffered a traumatic brain injury and can no longer walk, speak, hear or move, the complaint states.
Lawsuit alleges excessive force, inadequate training
At the Tuesday news conference, Sivatia’s mother, Nonnie Masaniai Pea, said her son used to help care for the family’s nine grandchildren. Better known by the nickname “OJ,” he also worked full time at a glass company. Now, he is like a “new baby,” she said. Sometimes, he doesn’t recognize her from his hospital bed.
“I’m so tired,” said Masaniai Pea. “But as a mother, this is what we do.”
The complaint argues that any reasonable officer would have “known with certainty that compelling a suspect, like Atonio, to lie on his back in a lane of highspeed traffic on Redwood Road at midnight would subject that suspect to a very high risk of catastrophic injury.”
According to the complaint, West Valley City Police Department policy bars officers from using a Taser on someone if they could be hurt after they are stunned and immobilized. It notes that officers are trained not to use a Taser for minor offenses and are taught to use their patrol cars to prevent traffic from hitting someone who may be in a roadway.
The complaint accuses Fox of federal excessive force violations for chasing Sivatia “recklessly, deliberately, and needlessly ... onto a busy, dark highway,” then using a Taser on him.
It also alleges that Fox and Williams infringed on Sivatia’s rights as a Utah citizen, including his rights against illegal search and seizure, excessive force and denial of due process.
“Had there been proper training,” the complaint alleges, “Atonio never would have been Tased on a busy roadway, and Williams or some other Officer would have blocked the southbound number 1 lane of traffic where Atonio was laying.”
The complaint seeks an unspecified amount of money for various damages, as well as legal fees.
“These consequences and damages will continue for the rest of Atonio’s life,” the complaint argues. “This includes life-long medical care, more surgeries, life-long assisted living care, and life-long loss of meaningful relationships with family and friends.”
The former “church boy” who was always joking will likely never regain his lost speech or motor skills, Masaniai Pea said. When asked what her son is like now, she said, “He’s alive.”
West Valley City police had not filed a formal response to the lawsuit as of Tuesday evening.
In her text message statement, Vainuku said Tuesday that the case referenced in the lawsuit is under investigation by “Protocol Team 1,” which is led by the Salt Lake City Police Department.
“In addition, this case, as is standard for all uses of force in our department, will undergo an internal review,” Vainuku continued. “We don’t draw any conclusion about the case until all the facts are known and the investigation is complete.”