LIHUE – A halted lawsuit against two Kauai Police Department officers will proceed to trial following an appeals court ruling that overturned a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case.
In a decision filed on Tuesday, the Hawaii Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled that the 5th Circuit Court erred in the case of Alison Joan Sanchez vs. The County of Kauai when it issued a summary judgment in 2013 in favor of the defendants. The Kauai Police Department and police officers Eric Caspillo and Barry DeBlake are also named defendants in the case.
In its decision to reverse the lower court ruling, the appeals court said that the circuit court decision was premature because there were still issues of fact that need to be resolved.
“We obviously agree totally with the appellate court decision,” said the plaintiff’s attorney Bill Harrison, of the law firm Harrison & Matsuoka.
The case stems from an incident that occurred on Christmas Eve 2008, when Kauai resident Alison Sanchez’s son was in a car accident on Olohena Road in Kapaa. Sanchez went to the scene to find out what happened but when she got there, she was told by the officers to stay back.
Sanchez was “all frantic because she wants to see what happened to her son,” Harrison said, explaining why his client disobeyed the officer’s orders to stay back from the wrecked vehicle.
According to court documents, Sanchez said the officers then twisted her arm behind her and handcuffed her.
She was then put in the back of the police car but was not buckled up, and during the drive to the police station she was banged around in the back seat, injuring her shoulder, her attorney said.
“That’s not how you treat someone in this situation,” Harrison said.
As it turns out, her son was not severely injured in the crash but he was transported to the hospital before Sanchez arrived on the scene.
She was charged with a criminal offense for refusing to comply with a police officer, but the charges against her were later dropped.
Sanchez, who had a pre-existing shoulder injury prior to this incident, has already undergone two surgeries and is in need of a third, Harrison said.
Kauai County argued in court that the officers acted properly within their authority under the law and therefore were immune from lawsuits.
The county asked for a summary judgment, which was granted. However, the plaintiff argued that the officers acted with malice due to the way they treated her and their demeanor toward her, so immunity does not apply in this instance.
The appeals court agreed with the plaintiff that the question of whether or not the officers acted with malice was in dispute, so the case should not have been summarily dismissed and may continue.
“My client is very happy because now she can get her day in court and prove that this kind of activity shouldn’t happen, and if it does people should be compensated for it.” Harrison said.
Sanchez is asking for damages to cover her medical expenses which are already in excess of $100,000, as well as punitive damages.
Kauai County spokeswoman Sarah Blane said that she could not comment on pending litigation.
This is not the first time officer Caspillo has been accused of using excessive force. In 2012, the county settled a lawsuit that stemmed from a 2009 incident in which a mixed martial arts fighter, Lebeau Lagmay, was shot with a stun gun. Lagmay claimed that despite putting his hands up to surrender, Caspillo used the stun gun on him three times.
In that incident, Lagmay was ultimately sentenced to one year in prison for making threats and drunk driving. The amount the civil suit was settled for was not disclosed.
With the court’s decision, the Sanchez case against the county will now continue.
Ryan Kazmirzack, government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428.