By Pat Reavy
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (KSL) — A man who suffered permanent debilitating injuries when he was run over by a car while being arrested by West Valley police is now suing the officers involved.
Atonio Sivatia, 22 — known as “O.J.” to his family and friends — was lying on the ground on Redwood Road when a car ran directly ran over him. Sivatia was caught underneath the car and dragged about 15 feet before the car came to a stop on top of his head.
On Tuesday, through his 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’ve ever had as an attorney,” Sykes said during a press conference announcing the lawsuit.
On Dec. 6, 2020, police were called to an apartment complex near 4000 S. Redwood Road about midnight where Sivatia was yelling and screaming in the parking lot and broke an apartment window. Nonnie Masaniai, Sivatia’s mother, said her son was at a party with alcohol, but doesn’t know what made him upset that night. Sykes suggested he had been in an argument with his girlfriend.
But a West Valley police officer wrote in a police report that he was dispatched to assist another officer with “a violent mental subject.” Witnesses could hear Sivatia yelling suicidal comments as he punched apartment walls and a window and then went outside and banged on several car windows. One person who was sitting in his car told officers that Sivatia punched his window and demanded that he give him his vehicle, the report states. Sykes said Tuesday that Sivatia had 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 from the officers involved. One video begins with West Valley police officer Ammon Fox arriving at the apartment complex. Sivatia can be heard yelling in the background.
“Get on the ground, this is the police department,” Fox ordered Sivatia. “You can’t keep attacking people.”
Instead, Sivatia started moving away from the officer.
“He’s now running from me, not moving very fast,” the officer tells police dispatchers. “Stop, police!”
As Sivatia makes his way to Redwood Road, Fox’s tone on the video becomes more urgent. According to a police report, “Fox advised over the (police) radio that the male was attempting to be hit by vehicles in the road and a Taser was deployed.” In another court document, the officer again stated that he believed Sivatia was having “an apparent psychiatric episode” and that he used his Taser to prevent a crash on Redwood Road.
Sykes said he does not believe that is true, stating his client was not trying to intentionally be hit.
After Fox deployed his Taser, it caused Sivatia to fall to the ground. Sivatia was left lying on his back in the inside lane of traffic on Redwood Road, according to the lawsuit.
“Any reasonable officer would have known with certainty that compelling a suspect, like Atonio, to lie on his back in a lane of high speed traffic on Redwood Road at midnight would subject that suspect to a very high risk of catastrophic injury from being struck by a motorist who would not expect to encounter a person lying on the road at that time of night,” the lawsuit states.
It further contends that the officer’s actions to that point “were more than just negligent but were reckless, grossly negligent and extremely outrageous under the circumstances.” A Taser should not have been used in that situation, especially on a busy road, Sykes said.
The road was dark at that time and not well lit, and one car barely missed Sivatia when he first dropped to the ground after the Taser was deployed, the lawsuit says. At this point, Sivatia was compliant with officers’ commands and can be heard in the bodycam video saying, “I’m sorry.”
In the video, Fox tells dispatchers he has traffic stopped, even though some cars continue to drive by in other lanes. A second officer then arrived on scene but did not properly block oncoming traffic, the lawsuit alleges. Sivatia was bleeding from the fall. Sykes said the officers wanted to get gloves on before assisting him.
He had been lying in the road on his back for approximately 90 seconds with his head facing oncoming traffic when he was run over. Other cars slowed down or momentarily stopped, and moved around Sivatia. Moments after a vehicle that had previously stopped in front of Sivatia slowly moved around him, another car behind that vehicle continued to drive in the lane Sivatia was lying in – where police officers were standing nearby with flashlights – and hit him.
The disturbing crash was captured on at least two body camera videos. Immediately an officer began yelling, seemingly in disbelief. Fox was also bumped by the oncoming vehicle but suffered minor injuries.
“We had a vehicle blow through our police cars and hit our subject and myself,” Fox tells dispatchers while asking them to expedite the medical response. When the car stopped, several officers yelled at the two women in the vehicle who seemed unaware that they had run over someone.
“You’re on top of someone, get the hell out of the way,” an officer is heard yelling at the driver.
An officer eventually pulls the seemingly confused driver out of her car and backs the vehicle off of Sivatia.
The driver, who happened to be a nurse, helped police give medical aid to Sivatia after she realized what had happened. Police later determined her blood-alcohol level was 0.14, or nearly three times the legal limit, according to charging documents. She was charged with DUI, a third-degree felony.
Sykes contends not only that Fox shouldn’t have used his Taser, but that he and other officers did not properly block Sivatia from oncoming traffic once he was down.
“Fox acted recklessly in several aspects, but he was particularly reckless when he continued to order Atonio to stay on the road and not move even though he could see that traffic was not blocked and was moving toward Atonio,” the lawsuit says.
Sivatia “suffered extreme life-altering injuries” including a traumatic brain injury and has had multiple surgeries over the past year, the lawsuit states. He is no longer able to walk or talk, and “no longer has the physical or mental ability to care for himself in any capacity. … Atonio has been rendered permanently and totally disabled.”
Sivatia will likely remain in a care facility for the rest of his life, his attorney said.
Masaniai said doctors asked her several times if she wanted to take her son off of life-support, noting that if he recovered would be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. She declined.
“He’s my only son, and I’m here. I don’t care,” she said Tuesday. “I’ll do anything for my son. … I am here for my son.”
Masaniai said her son cannot walk or talk, but he has some usage of one of his arms.
“He’s not the same, he’s not the same O.J. He’s not,” she said. “Sometimes I think he doesn’t know I’m his mom. He’s like 6 years old. … He’s like a new kid again, a new baby.”
West Valley police issued a prepared statement Tuesday in response to the lawsuit:
“We are aware of a lawsuit filed in this case and will begin the process of reviewing it. 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. We don’t draw any conclusion about the case until all the facts are known and the investigation is complete.”