A man who suffered permanent debilitating injuries when he was hit by a car while arrested by West Valley Police is now suing the officers involved.
Atonio Sivatia, 22 – nicknamed “OJ” by his family and friends – was lying on the ground on Redwood Road when a car rounded a stopped police vehicle and directly crushed him. Sivatia was caught under the car and dragged about 15 feet before the car came to a stop overhead.
On Tuesday, through her mother and attorney Robert Sykes, Sivatia filed a lawsuit in federal court against West Valley City and four of its police officers.
“This is one of the saddest cases I have ever had as a lawyer,” Sykes said at a press conference announcing the trial.
On December 6, 2020, police were called to an apartment complex near 4000 S. Redwood Road around midnight where Sivatia was screaming and yelling in the parking lot and smashed an apartment window. Sivatia’s mother Nonnie Masaniai said her son was at a party with alcohol, but is unsure what upset him that night. Sykes suggested he had an argument with his girlfriend.
But a West Valley police officer wrote in a police report that he was sent to assist another officer with “a violent mental matter.” Witnesses could hear Sivatia shouting suicidal comments as he punched the walls of the apartment and a window, then got out and knocked on several car windows. A person who was sitting in his car told officers that Sivatia knocked on his window and asked him to give him his vehicle, the report said. Sykes said on Tuesday that Sivatia called for a ride to leave the party and thought the driver was there to pick him up, so he knocked on the window.
Sykes showed body camera video of the officers involved. A video begins with West Valley Police Officer Ammon Fox arriving at the apartment complex. Sivatia can be heard screaming in the background.
“Go to the ground, it’s the police department,” Fox ordered Sivatia. “You can’t keep attacking people.”
Instead, Sivatia began to walk away from the officer.
“He’s running away from me now, not moving very fast,” the officer told police dispatchers. “Stop it, policemen! “
As Sivatia heads towards Redwood Road, Fox’s tone on the video becomes more urgent. According to a police report, “Fox informed over (police) radio that the man was attempting to be struck by vehicles on the road and a Taser was deployed. In another court document, the officer again stated that he believed Sivatia had “an apparent psychiatric episode” and that he used his Taser to avoid an accident on Redwood Road.
Sykes said he didn’t believe this to be true, stating that his client was not trying to get hit on purpose.
After Fox deployed her Taser, Sivatia fell to the ground. Sivatia was left lying on her back in the interior taxiway on Redwood Road, according to the lawsuit.
“Any reasonable officer would have known for sure that forcing a suspect, like Atonio, to lie on his back in a high-speed traffic lane on Redwood Road at midnight would put that suspect at a very high risk of catastrophic injury by being struck by a motorist who would not expect to meet a person lying on the road at this time of night, ”the trial said.
He further contends that the officer’s actions at this point “were more than mere negligence, but were reckless, grossly negligent and extremely scandalous in the circumstances”. A Taser should not have been used in this situation, especially on a busy road, Sykes said.
The road was dark at the time and poorly lit, and a car barely missed Sivatia when it first fell to the ground after the Taser was deployed, according to the lawsuit. At this point, Sivatia was complying with the officers’ orders and can be heard in the body camera video saying, “I’m sorry.”
In the video, Fox tells dispatchers he has stopped traffic even though some cars continue to pass in other lanes. A second officer then arrived at the scene but did not properly block oncoming traffic, according to the lawsuit. Sivatia was bleeding from the fall. Sykes said officers wanted to put on gloves before helping him.
He had been lying on his back on the road for approximately 90 seconds with his head turned towards oncoming traffic when he was knocked down.
The disturbing crash was captured on at least two body camera videos. Immediately, an officer started screaming. Fox was also struck by the oncoming vehicle, but sustained minor injuries.
“We blew up a vehicle in our police cars and collided with our subject and myself,” Fox told dispatchers while urging them to expedite the medical response. When the car stopped, several police officers shouted at the two women in the vehicle who appeared not to know that they had run over someone.
“You’re on top of someone, get the hell out of it,” hears an officer shout at the driver.
An officer finally pulls the apparently confused driver out of his car and backs the vehicle out of Sivatia.
The driver, who happened to be a nurse, helped the police with medical treatment for Sivatia after she realized what had happened. Police then determined his blood alcohol level was 0.14, nearly three times the legal limit, according to prosecution documents. She was charged with DUI, a third degree felony.
Sykes not only contends that Fox shouldn’t have used his Taser, but that he and other officers failed to properly block Sivatia from oncoming traffic once he broke down.
Fox acted recklessly in several ways, but he was especially reckless when he continued to order Atonio to stay on the road and not move even though he could see that the traffic was not blocked. and was heading towards Atonio, ”says the trial.
Sivatia “suffered life-changing injuries” including head trauma and has undergone several surgeries in the past year, according to the lawsuit. He is no longer able to walk or speak, and “no longer has the physical or mental capacity to take care of himself in any capacity. … Atonio has become permanently and totally disabled”.
Sivatia will likely remain in a care facility for the rest of her life, her lawyer said.
Masaniai said doctors repeatedly asked her if she wanted to remove her son from life support, noting that if he recovered he would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. She refused.
“He’s my only child, and I’m here. I don’t care,” she said on Tuesday. “I’ll do anything for my son. … I’m here for my son.”
Masaniai said her son could not walk or speak, but used to use one of his arms.
“He’s not the same, he’s not the same Olympics. He’s not,” she said. “Sometimes I think he doesn’t know I’m his mother. He’s about 6 years old.… He’s like a newborn baby again, a new baby.”
West Valley Police released a prepared statement in response to the trial on Tuesday:
“We are aware of a legal action filed in this case and will begin the review process. The case referenced in the lawsuit is being investigated by Protocol Team 1, which is led by the Salt Lake City Police Department. Further, this matter, as is the norm for all use of force in our service, will be subject to internal review. We will not draw any conclusions. on the case until all the facts are known and the investigation is completed. “