AUSTIN (KXAN) — Three more protesters who were injured by less-lethal rounds during the May 2020 protests are suing the City of Austin, claiming excessive force by Austin Police Department officers.
The lawsuits filed Monday are from Alyssa Sanders, Taylor Ellis and Cesar Fuentez. They are being represented by attorney Jeff Edwards. Edwards explained, in part, media coverage on protest lawsuits “has led people to say, ‘you know what, it’s not fair that I was hurt.'”
KXAN reached out to the City of Austin for comment on the lawsuits. A spokesperson said in a statement, “As with all of the claims and lawsuits the City has received related to the May 2020 protests, we will handle this one respectfully and fairly. Each case is different, and we will review the facts and circumstances and advise our clients as appropriate.”
Breaking down each lawsuit
According to her lawsuit, Sanders was protesting on May 31 near the intersection of Cesar Chavez and Guadalupe Streets. At one point, the lawsuit said APD officers pepper sprayed the crowd and began firing beanbag and less lethal rounds. Sanders tried to leave to get to safety, but before she could the lawsuit said one APD officer hit her in the head with a less-lethal round. The shot fractured Sanders’ skull “and caused multiple brain bleeds.”
Edwards described Sanders as a “brilliant” and “aspiring young person who had everything in front of her.” She was a grad student at Texas State University who now has issues with her memory and processing because of the “traumatic” brain injury she suffered at the protests, Edwards said. She’s not going to have the life she thought she would have, he continued.
“And to have that taken by something so senseless that could’ve and should’ve been prevented if people simply cared and acknowledged what was going on, it’s just devastating,” he told KXAN.
Ellis was also protesting on May 31, according to his lawsuit, in the area between APD headquarters and Interstate 35. He walked with a crowd onto the highway, and APD officers began firing less-lethal rounds into the crowd “without any apparent justification,” his lawsuit read. As Ellis walked north with his hands in the air, two APD officers fired less-lethal rounds at him. According to his lawsuit, he was hit twice — in the left shoulder and left hip — and fell to the ground. He “suffered and continues to suffer significant injuries,” the lawsuit stated.
According to Fuentez’s lawsuit, he’s suing the city and an unidentified APD officer, represented as “John Doe” in the suit. Fuentez was protesting the day before Sanders and Ellis on May 30 on I-35. APD officers began to move protesters off the highway and onto an embankment, according to the lawsuit. During this, “numerous officers shot less lethal shotguns rapidly and without apparent justification into the crowd,” the lawsuit read. Fuentez began to run away from the officers and jumped over the highway barrier toward the access road. After the jump, the lawsuit said the unknown APD officer hit Fuentez with a less-lethal round, “penetrating his arm.” The projectile embedded in his muscle and “had to be surgically removed by doctors.”
According to their lawsuits, all three plaintiffs are seeking relief for damages including medical expenses, loss of earning capacity, physical pain, mental anguish, impairment and disfigurement.
Edwards said APD officers’ actions were endorsed by city leaders. He said despite “explicit pleas” from a city councilman to stop crowd control using less-lethal weapons, city leaders “did not stop what they knew to be a dangerous practice.”
Civil lawsuits, indictments connected to May 2020 protests
Since then, several protesters filed civil lawsuits against the city, APD and specific officers, many of them suffering head injuries after being hit by beanbag rounds.
In early March, the City of Austin approved a $2.95 million settlement in the lawsuit of another protester, Brad Levi Ayala. He was 16 years old at the time of the protest and was shot in the head with a “less lethal” beanbag round.
In mid-February, the city also approved a total of $10 million in settlements for protesters Anthony Evans, who suffered a broken jaw after being hit in the head by a less lethal round, and Justin Howell, a Texas State University student who was put in critical condition after being hit by one of the rounds.
At least 19 APD officers have been indicted on aggravated assault by a public servant charges in relation to the May 2020 protests, accused of harming a total of 10 protesters. Two of the indicted APD officers were named in the lawsuits filed Monday: Eric Heim and Todd Gilbertson.
When the indictments were announced in mid-February, APD Chief Joseph Chacon said while the weapons provided to APD officers to control crowds (less-lethal rounds) didn’t work as anticipated, the department has recognized this and prohibits such equipment now.
The lawsuits filed Monday by Edwards Law also mention other protesters reportedly injured by APD officers as well as some of the settlements the city reached, saying “victims suffered intercranial hemorrhages, depressed skull fractures, depressed frontal bone fracture, fractured jaws, brain damage, and post traumatic stress disorder.”