de la Garza Law Group in the Houston Chronicle

Jan 5, 2016

Federal judge urges parties to try to settle Taser case

‘A jury could say: This man has a dart in the eye and they’re still shooting him’, official tells attorneys for city.

In a deeply concerned tone, a veteran federal judge implored the city of Houston and a lawyer for an unarmed man, who in 2011 was Tasered in the eye by officers, to reach an outside-the-courtroom resolution.

“I think this case ought to be settled,” U.S. District Judge Sim Lake in mid December told the attorneys several times in reference to the police excessive force lawsuit. “This is a case where a jury could say: This man has a dart in the eye and they’re still shooting him?”

Corey Khansari and his parents, Debra and Michael Khansari, sued the city, Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland and several officers about an emergency call for an ambulance that turned into what the family describes as a law enforcement ambush on an unarmed, distressed young man in need of medical care.

The family’s complaint seeks to recover damages for injuries Corey, then 19, sustained when his mother called 911 after he took multiple medications and she feared he might be trying to commit suicide. After one ambulance showed up, a half-dozen HPD officers converged on the Khansari home with weapons drawn.

In December 2013, the defendants asked for the case to be dismissed because the force used wasn’t excessive or the actors were entitled to qualified immunity, which shields public officials from liability to civil damages as long as their conduct does not violate clearly established law.

In an April 2014 opinion and order, Lake wrote that the plaintiffs’ allegations of fact were strong enough to leave questions about whether the “excessiveness of the force was objectively reasonable” and declined to dismiss Corey’s excessive force claims against the individual officers. The judge also allowed limited discovery for the purposes of determining the officers’ entitlement to qualified immunity.

The lawsuit contends the officers failed to get adequate information about the situation and improperly aimed a Taser at a person’s face. The filing further alleges that the city employs an inadequate policy and custom related to crisis intervention and fails to train and supervise officers.

“The use of any force, especially such force as was used, with an emotionally disturbed teenager under these circumstances is objectively unreasonable and unconstitutional,” the suit stated.

According to the September 2013 civil rights lawsuit, Corey has suffered from “severe allergies” and has experienced anaphylactic shock attacks.

He carries an epinephrine pen with him in case of an allergic reaction. His anxiety medications beget “thoughts of suicide” and “depression” as well as long sleeping spells, the lawsuit said.

‘Feared the officers’

Corey slept most of Nov. 25, 2011, the day after Thanksgiving, and awoke in the late afternoon. His mother observed him “mumble strangely to himself” then watched him “take a large number of medication pills.”

Fearing her son was attempting suicide, Debra Khansari called 911.

When an ambulance arrived, Corey said he didn’t want to go, and a paramedic told Debra Khansari that another ambulance was being called “for back-up,” the lawsuit said.

That’s when the first HPD patrol car arrived at the southwest Houston home.

In the suit, Debra Khansari asserts that she asked the female officer, now identified as Candice Bradshaw Vaughan, why she was loading a long gun and allegedly was told that “I might have to kill someone.” The mother said she told the officer that no one in the home was armed and that there weren’t any guns inside.

After additional officers arrived, some also armed with long guns, Corey walked outside, the lawsuit said.

“The officers pointed their weapons at Corey. Red laser beam dots appeared on Corey, which terribly frightened Corey and his mother. They feared the officers were going to shoot Corey,” the lawsuit said.

Debra Khansari stepped between the officers and Corey, but her son pushed her out of the line of fire, the filing alleges.

“Immediately, an officer used a Taser to strike Corey in the face and on his head. One of the Taser darts pierced Corey’s right eye,” the lawsuit said.

Corey fell to the ground, but tried to get up and was Tasered again in the torso and legs by at least two other officers. Despite severe pain, Corey was able to rise and go back inside the house.

“Corey went to the living room mirror, pulled the Taser dart out from his right eye, suffering excruciating pain and bleeding profusely,” the lawsuit said.

Corey was taken to the hospital and was not charged in the incident.

The Taser caused Corey to lose vision in his right eye. He has ongoing “severe and permanent damage to his optical nerve and retina” as well as “frequent severe pain to the right side of his face and head that prevents him from doing many things he used to do and that has significantly impacted his life for the worse,” the lawsuit said.

In October, Lake issued another opinion and order that dismissed claims against all officers except William E. Rutherford, who is accused of deploying his Taser into Corey’s head, and Vaughan, a now-former HPD employee who was the first law enforcement official on the scene.

Settlement prospects

In response to an interview request, Khansari family lawyer Mario Ernesto de la Garza declined to make the plaintiffs available until after trial now set for March 7.

The parties went to mediation and “discussed their differing positions, but were unable to reach a resolution,” a joint mediation report filed in October said.

At the Dec. 11 hearing, Judge Lake reiterated his obligation to candidly discuss settlement prospects.

City of Houston lawyer Suzanne Chauvin said the parties have had some post-mediation discussions but remain “very far apart.”

The judge asked about Corey’s condition and de la Garza said the repeated Tasering resulted in trigeminal neuralgia, a long-term pain condition in one of the head’s most widely distributed nerves, as well as eight retinal surgeries and a cataract removal.

“Given Corey’s injuries and the facts of the case, the city should make an offer beyond the cost of defense,” Lake said.

The judge told the lawyers that a jury could reject the plaintiffs’ allegations, but said “continuing to shoot the young man while he was down is not the conduct that is covered by qualified immunity.”

If there’s no resolution in the next few months, the dispute could end up before a jury.

“As I say often before a trial: Somebody is going to be very disappointed,” Lake said.