Brenda Mazariegos v. City of Stamford: A woman who claims a Stamford police officer punched her in the face hard enough to cause a minor brain injury has settled her lawsuit for $230,000 after a trial resulted in a hung jury.
The jury, however, also rendered a defense verdict at the same trial, as the woman’s husband and another couple had also sued the city and the officer stemming from the same incident.
In June 2009, Brenda Mazariegos, of Norwalk, was attempting to enter the parking lot of her employer, The Palms Nightclub, a downtown Stamford business co-owned by her husband. With Mazariegos was her friend and fellow employee, Sandra Solis.
On this day there was a street concert in downtown Stamford. Police Officer Greg Zach had been instructed not to let anyone park in a small lot near the nightclub, and he refused to let Mazariegos pull in.
Mazariegos and her friend explained that they worked at the club and that they would get Mazariegos’ husband to come and straighten out the parking situation. But the officer also told the husband that his supervisor told him not to let anyone in the lot because of the concert. Mazariegos’ husband told the officer he knew the supervisor and would call him.
At that point, Brenda Mazariegos got back into her car and was about to proceed into the parking lot when the officer asked for her driver’s license. She said she had left it at home. So Zach then ordered Mazariegos out of the vehicle.
At that point, the stories diverge. Mazariegos alleges that Zach began punching her in the face, head, neck and shoulders, though it was one punch that did the most damage, causing an orange-sized hematoma on her forehead, according to Antonio Ponvert III, of Koskoff, Koskoff & Bieder, who represented Mazariegos.
The officer, however, said the woman had flailed at him and tried scratching him with her fingernails, so he punched her to defend himself.
“Witnesses say she never tried to flail or scratch him,” said Ponvert. “He has no scratches anywhere. Beyond that, we don’t really know what his motivation was. I don’t know whether he just has a really short fuse. I don’t know if something was going on with him that day.”
Ponvert said Zach had a history of prior abusive behavior toward citizens, including women and, in one instance, a child. He also said Zach was the fourth-highest-paid officer in Stamford in the prior year because of the huge amounts of overtime he worked. Ponvert speculated that the officer may have had a short temper from spending too much time on the job.
Ponvert said Mazariegos suffered posttraumatic stress disorder after the incident, as well as a mild traumatic brain injury. “Officer Zach’s excessive force against a tiny woman should have landed him in jail,” said Ponvert, noting that Zach was 6 feet tall and his client was an even 5 feet tall. “Instead, he is back on the job, wearing a uniform and carrying a gun.”
Ponvert said an internal affairs investigation by the Stamford Police Department concluded that the officer did use excessive force. He said the officer was disciplined and placed on desk duty for a period of time. Zach is now back on regular duty.
Mazariegos’ husband, along with Solis and her husband, allegedly witnessed the assault. Mazariegos’ husband alleged bystander emotional distress, while the other couple claimed they were injured when the officer shoved them.
At the same December 2013 trial that resulted in a hung jury for Mazariegos, the jury sided with Stamford and the officer with regard to the allegations by the other three plaintiffs.
“The jury understood the claims were probably overexaggerated and their injuries were overly exaggerated too,” said Elliot Spector of Noble, Spector & O’Connor‘s Farmington office, who represented the police officer. “They all went to the same doctors, physical therapists. I think a lot of this action was orchestrated.”
The weeklong trial was held before Superior Court Judge Anthony Truglia Jr. Spector said the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleged more than 30 counts, but the jury found for the defendants in all but three of the claims involving Brenda Mazariegos. On those claims, there was a hung jury.
“I think what the jury was faced with was a situation where you have some citizens who are not being cooperative with the police,” said Spector. “I think the primary plaintiff lost emotional control and started to flail at the officer and the officer reacted and struck her. I think most juries realize police officers have a tough job … and when citizens comply with an officer’s demands, incidents like this do not occur.”
Spector predicted that if the case were to be retried, the result would be either another hung jury or a defense verdict. Nevertheless, he said the city ultimately decided to settle the claims by Brenda Mazariegos. “It sounds like a lot of money, but the city was prudent and wise in deciding to dispose of it,” said Spector, noting that a jury in the next trial could have awarded attorney fees and costs if it ruled for the plaintiff. “Trials are expensive.”
Ponvert and his client was also pleased to avoid a second trial. “This experience was extremely traumatic for her and testifying about it was equally difficult,” said Ponvert. “There was a real desire for finality.”
Besides, Ponvert said, the plaintiffs’ main goals had been accomplished: to try to persuade the city to change its supervision of “rogue officers” and to get enough compensation to help Brenda Mazariegos move forward.
“There’s no amount of money that’s going to erase what happened, but it seemed like a good enough amount of money to make risking a second trial not a particularly good idea,” said Ponvert. “I do think almost a quarter of a million dollars for a punch in the face is a good result.”•