$750,000 award against Lowell in brutality case

BOSTON — The city will appeal a federal jury’s $750,000 award against Lowell and a controversial city police officer in an excessive force lawsuit stemming from a 1997 fight at The Usual Restaurant & Lounge.

Lowell police Superintendent Edward F. Davis III confirmed yesterday the city will appeal Tuesday’s verdict involving Officer Stephen Ciavola in a civil lawsuit filed by Craig Chestnut, 32, of Lowell.

After a seven-day trial in U.S. District Court, the jury spent just four hours deliberating before awarding Chestnut $500,000 in punitive damages against the city, $210,000 in compensatory damages against the city and Ciavola, and $40,000 in damages to be paid by Ciavola.

The appeal must be filed within 30 days.

This isn’t the only time Ciavola, 28, a five-year veteran of the Lowell department, has faced complaints.

Davis confirmed that since he was hired in 1995, Ciavola, of Lowell, has had four complaints lodged against him: one was unsubstantiated, a second was the incident with Chestnut, and two are still pending. Ciavola is currently on paid administrative leave due to one of the pending cases.

The lawsuit arose following Chestnut’s Feb. 7, 1997 arrest at The Usual at 19 Merrimack St. in Lowell. Chestnut and his wife were at the downtown bar with friends when a fight broke out.

Plaintiff’s attorney Daniel Sharp, of the Marblehead-based Whitfield Sharp & Sharp, said that while Chestnut was not involved in the fight, when his wife was knocked down he had a confrontation with another man and Chestnut was punched. Then the police arrived.

As Chestnut was handcuffed, he turned to the arresting officer and Ciavola, who was off-duty, telling them he held them responsible for his wife’s safety, Sharp said. With that, Ciavola punched Chestnut in the right eye and later kicked him while he was on the ground, Sharp said.

Sharp said Chestnut, the father of four children, received 14 stitches to his eye and sustained long-term damage to his depth perception that has prohibited him from keeping his job as a crane operator. Chestnut is now a crane mechanic at less pay.

In an interview yesterday, Davis said that at the time of the incident Ciavola was off-duty at the bar, after returning from a night of drinking at a union-sponsored bus trip to a hockey game.

Davis acknowledges that a departmental internal affairs investigation showed Ciavola hit Chestnut, and as a result the officer was given a five-day unpaid suspension.

“The evidence clearly showed he (Ciavola) punched him (Chestnut),” Davis said. “What happened to him (Chestnut) was terrible and the officer was punished.”

Davis said he unaware that Chestnut’s eye had been damaged. “We believed the extent of the injuries was a black eye,” he said.

No criminal charges were pursued against Ciavola because the Middlesex County District Attorney’s Office decided the case had been handled internally, Davis said.

Another officer, Thomas Shanahan, was placed on probation and later fired for his involvement in the main fight. Shanahan has sued the department to get his job back.

In his suit, Chestnut claimed the city was “deliberately indifferent to the safety of its citizens” by hiring Ciavola, who was accused of assault and battery three times in 1994, one year before being hired in 1995 as a police officer, Sharp alleges.

Sharp claims one of the charges was dismissed by the victim, while Ciavola was placed on probation on another charge and pleaded guilty to a civilian assault complaint, paying a $200 fine.

Ciavola also has two misdemeanor convictions for shoplifting and public drinking dating back to 1989. His juvenile record has been sealed.

Davis and Lowell police Sgt. Thomas Fleming, who is involved in the hiring process, said they are only aware of two misdemeanor assault charges: one was dismissed and the other was a minor incident in which Ciavola paid a fine.

Davis notes that under Civil Service rules only convictions count, and Ciavola’s one misdemeanor conviction would not have been enough to bypass him from being hired.

When he was hired, Ciavola, a decorated U.S. Marine, had numerous letters of recommendation from people who praised his character, Fleming said.