Lowell must pay $500G in assault by officer

LOWELL — The city must pay more than $500,000 in punitive damages to a Lowell man that a police officer handcuffed, punched and kicked in a downtown bar five years ago.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday refused to overturn a 2000 court ruling in which the city was found liable in the beating, in part because the court said Officer Stephen Ciavola had a criminal record before the Police Department hired him.

A jury had awarded victim Craig Chestnut $750,000. The city paid Chestnut more than $250,000 in compensatory damages and lawyers’ fees related to the case, but appeals the jury’s ruling of punitive damages of more than $500,000.

Ciavola reportedly beat Chestnut at The Usual, a now-defunct bar on Merrimack Street, on Feb. 4, 1997. Chestnut claimed he had retaliated against a man who knocked his wife down inside the bar when a fight broke out near where Chestnut and his wife were sitting.

Chestnut then retaliated, and was handcuffed by Officer Steven Coyle and taken outside. It was there that Ciavola assaulted him, resulting in a cut over Chestnut’s eye that required 14 stitches and has impaired Chestnut’s vision.

Ciavola, 30, became an officer in November 1995. He had committed several assaults and batteries and other crimes, including shoplifting and being a minor in possession of alcohol, before he was hired, according to attorney Daniel Sharp of Marblehead, who represents Chestnut.

Ciavola was suspended for one year in early 2000 after mediation involving City Manager John Cox. He’s currently assigned as a patrolmen on the night shift in the city’s west sector.

Police Superintendent Edward Davis III deferred comment to the city’s law department because he has not yet read the court decision.

Coyle was also named in the suit. Chestnut claimed Coyle did not protect him while he was in custody. The jury in the original case did not find Coyle liable on either count.

The drawn-out case led to former City Solicitor Daniel Wojcik’s resignation in July 2000. Wojcik came under criticism for failing to invoke case law that city officials believed would have been advantageous to the city’s case.

The latest ruling “should teach the city that it cannot hire criminals as police officers,” Sharp said in the statement yesterday.