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US to pay $250,000 to settle lawsuit by disabled vet detained after parking in disabled spot

The federal government has agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit by a disabled U.S. Marine veteran from San Diego who said a national park ranger used excessive force while arresting him for parking in a handicapped space, according to the veteran's lawyer. (Joe Sohm/Dreamstime/TNS)

The federal government has agreed to pay $250,000 to settle a lawsuit by a disabled U.S. Marine veteran from San Diego who said a national park ranger used excessive force while arresting him for parking in a handicapped space, according to the veteran’s lawyer.

The veteran, Sgt. Dominic Esquibel, sued the U.S. government and the Department of the Interior in federal court in 2014, alleging assault, battery, false imprisonment and negligence related to Esquibel’s arrest on Dec. 22, 2012 at the Big Stump entrance of Sequoia National Park in Fresno.

One of Esquibel’s attorneys, Nicholas “Butch” Wagner, said in an interview Wednesday that the defendants did not admit wrongdoing, but Esquibel is satisfied that the settlement amount makes it clear that he should not have been treated as he was.

“He wanted to bring awareness … that just because someone does not appear handicapped does not mean that they aren’t,” Wagner said of Esquibel’s primary motivation for filing the lawsuit.

According to the lawsuit, Esquibel, who received the Navy Cross for heroism in combat in 2004 during the war in Iraq, suffered a serious injury to his right leg and arm when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011. The blast and other injuries during his years of service also left him with significant hearing loss, the lawsuit said.

Esquibel was with his wife, father, and a family friend when he drove to the entrance of Sequoia National Park. After presenting his free admission pass for people with disabilities to the employee at the entrance, Esquibel pulled his rental vehicle into an open disabled parking spot nearby, put up his disabled placard, and set out to find a restroom.

The employee to whom Esquibel had just presented his free admission pass shouted that he could not park there because it was a disabled spot.

Esquibel said he was disabled, to which the employee replied, “I can see you’re not,” and threatened to call police, the lawsuit said. Esquibel invited her to do so.

Two park rangers approached Esquibel and “started yelling at (Esquibel) demanding that (he) answer multiple questions,” according to the lawsuit. Because of Esquibel’s hearing loss and a thick cap and hood he was wearing, Esquibel did not understand or respond to all of their questions.

The ranger ordered Esquibel to show him his “handicapped driver’s license,” which Esquibel said he did not have or need because he was not driving a vehicle fitted with adaptive equipment, the lawsuit said. Esquibel said he had paperwork for the parking placard in his vehicle, but the ranger continued to demand the license.

The ranger told Esquibel he was under arrest for failing to follow a lawful order and pulled Esquibel’s arms, one of which was wounded, behind his back in a position that was painful to Esquibel, according to the lawsuit. The ranger began kicking apart Esquibel’s feet, including his injured foot, to search him.

Esquibel and his wife pleaded for the ranger to stop kicking his foot, which had recently undergone surgery, but the ranger continued until Esquibel’s wife began crying and told the ranger he was damaging her husband’s foot, the lawsuit said. The ranger stopped and asked what she was talking about.

After Esquibel repeated what he had told the ranger earlier about his injuries, the ranger pulled up Esquibel’s pant leg and saw the “exoskeleton” on his injured leg, the lawsuit said.

The ranger placed Esquibel, still handcuffed, in the back of a patrol vehicle, where Esquibel waited for about 15 minutes while the ranger spoke to the employee at the entrance kiosk. The employee allegedly told the ranger she had been trying to get Esquibel to move his vehicle because she wanted to save the parking spot for a co-worker who would be arriving soon, according to the lawsuit.

Finally, the ranger released Esquibel with a citation for “failure to follow a lawful order,” the lawsuit said.

The government fought the civil lawsuit until early last month, when, less than three weeks before trial was to begin, it filed a notice of settlement, according to court records.

Wagner, Esquibel’s attorney, told the San Diego Union-Tribune on Wednesday that the parties in the lawsuit finalized the settlement agreement last week.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.