WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court ruled a Silver Spring woman can sue the city of Takoma Park and Prince George’s County for being mauled by a police dog during a 1995 search of her home.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said in a ruling filed Aug. 28 that Esther Vathekan could sue for the use of excessive force in the attack that left her permanently disfigured.
Vathekan, 50, was asleep in an upstairs bedroom of her former home on Glenside Drive on Jan. 10, 1995, when Prince George’s County Police dog Castro was released into the home to look for a burglar.
Takoma Park Police had been called to the home by Jonathan Lopez, a student renting Vathekan’s basement apartment, who came home to find the door ajar and broken glass. He did not know Vathekan had returned from the night shift as a private-duty nurse, so when police asked if anyone should rightfully be in the house, Lopez said no.
Castro found Vathekan and latched onto the top of her head and the right side of her face, leaving deep cuts to her head and face, fractured facial bones and a permanently damaged tear duct in her right eye.
Vathekan said in court papers that she received no warning when county police Cpl. Jeffrey J. Simms unleashed the dog in her home. A warning is required before a dog is released under standard operating procedures of the county’s canine unit.
But Simms said he gave the warning and Associate County Attorney John Anthony Bielec said Thursday that several officers said they heard the verbal warning. He said the county is disappointed by the ruling and plans to file a petition next week for a rehearing.
“It has always been our position that the police acted reasonably,” Bielec said. “Ms. Vathekan was an accidental bystander. She was not the intended target.
“It’s the same as if she shot by someone who was aiming at someone else. Sure, she was injured but not intentionally,” he said.
The county said it is entitled to summary judgment under the 14th Amendment, which grants the government qualified immunity. Bielec also said Vathekan’s Fourth Amendment rights could not have been violated because she was not the intended target of the search.
U.S. District Judge Frederic Smalkin agreed, granting summary judgment for the defendants on Aug. 22, 1996. He said the attack did “not approach the level of shocking the conscience” required for violation of due process.
Vathekan declined to comment on her case Thursday. Her attorney, Christopher A. Griffiths, said she plans to proceed with her case and has a hearing in Prince George’s County Circuit Court set for October.
Griffiths said his client has experienced constant pain since the attack and has trouble wearing her glasses because of it. She is seeking more than $42,000 to cover her medical expenses and punitive damages commensurate with her injuries, Griffiths said.