UC, city of Davis pay injured ex-student $774,000 in pepper-ball incident

Published: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 10:34 am

After more than eight years of legal infighting, the University of California and the city of Davis have paid a former student $774,000 for damage to his eye from a pepper ball fired by police.

Timothy C. Nelson's 2005 lawsuit in Sacramento federal court stemmed from UC Davis and city officers' actions the year before that cost him a big part of the vision in his left eye and his football scholarship at the university.

The outcome falls short of the public forum Nelson has long sought, but attorney John Burris, whose Oakland law firm represented Nelson, said the settlement satisfied his client.

Nelson, 30, was an outstanding student and linebacker from Dixon High School. He now teaches English in South America and was not available for comment.

In a telephone interview a year ago, he said, "I want to tell a jury what happened. I want a jury to hold them (the officers) accountable, and then I'll be able to sleep at night.

"For them to try to justify it is incredible. I just want to be judged by everyday, ordinary people who I'm sure would force them to take responsibility for what they've done to me."

Nelson also questioned whether the UC Davis Police Department had learned anything from the incident, citing a November 2011 incident in which one of its officers shot pepper spray at point-blank range into the faces of students – some of them seated with arms locked – protesting fee hikes. Video of the incident went viral on the Internet, there was public outrage and demands for the resignation of the chancellor. Eventually, the lieutenant who deployed the pepper spray was fired.

The UC system last year agreed to a $1 million settlement with students hit by the substance.

In Nelson's case, the university and the city agreed to split the payout – $387,000 from each.

"We are glad it's finally over," is all university spokesman Andy Fell would say.

Davis City Manager Steve Pinkerton did not respond to a request for comment.

The case made two trips to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The first time an appellate panel reinstated it after U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. had thrown it out. The second time, the higher court upheld England's ruling that the officers were not entitled to immunity from a civil rights suit.

On the evening of April 16, 2004, following the annual Picnic Day festivities at the university, a large crowd of young people gathered outside an apartment complex in Davis.

City police, assisted by officers from the school's department, moved in to break up the party. Bottles and other objects were thrown at them from various vantage points, and some in the crowd were engaging in acts of vandalism.

There was never any evidence to contradict Nelson's insistence he had no part in these acts. He was in a group standing in the complex's breezeway. Two officers testified no one was throwing objects from that location.

Three university officers were armed with pepper-ball launchers, which shoot round plastic balls filled with a powdery substance similar to pepper spray.

They are designed to break apart upon impact and disperse the powder.

The balls are considered acceptable tools as long as they are not aimed at sensitive parts of the body such as the face and groin.

A pepper ball was launched indiscriminately into the group in the breezeway and tore into Nelson's eye, knocking him to the ground and leaving him stunned and helpless.

He said in the interview a year ago that the group he was with were "just hanging out. We didn't even know exactly what was going on. It's tough to swallow."

Nelson, a sophomore at the time, was out of school a year and went back to the university the following year, working part time in a senior citizens center to partially make up for the loss of his scholarship. He graduated with a communications degree in 2008.

After three major surgeries, his left eye remains disfigured and its center vision is blurred, he said.

"The iris is torn and does not dilate. By the end of the day, my eyes are pretty worn down. It was life-changing, truly hard to sum up."

He suffers severe headaches made worse by the use of a computer, Nelson said.

Call The Bee's Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

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