A woman has tentatively settled her lawsuit claiming her son was wrongly killed by a state trooper who previously was the subject of a $12.5 million settlement for fatally shooting an unarmed 12-year-old boy in the back.
The federal lawsuit filed by Diane Zion more than five years ago contends Trooper Samuel Nassan III and a Pittsburgh officer, Sgt. Terrence Donnelly, wrongly fired at Nicholas Haniotakis in the early morning hours of March 15, 2009, as the city's bars were emptying following St. Patrick's festivities.
The officers claimed they fired only after a drunken, drugged Haniotakis who had an extensive criminal record that included other instances of escaping from or attacking police, tried to hit officers with his vehicle during a brief chase. The lawsuit was filed before toxicology tests from an autopsy revealed Haniotakis was drunk and had Xanax, morphine and cocaine metabolites in his system.
The plaintiff's attorneys, Geoffrey Fieger and Robert Giroux, of Detroit, and Austin Henry, of Pittsburgh, on Monday filed a motion for a judge to approve a tentative settlement and the payment of attorneys’ fees. Zion's lawsuit was also filed on behalf of her son's three surviving children.
U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti scheduled a telephone conference with attorneys for late Tuesday afternoon, but it wasn't immediately clear if the settlement could be approved at that time.
The notice of settlement doesn't include financial details, and said the settlement is subject to a confidentiality agreement. The plaintiff's attorneys didn't return a request for comment.
Nassan's attorney, David White, declined comment. Pittsburgh police spokeswoman Sonya Toler said the bureau doesn't comment on litigation. She confirmed that Donnelly remained employed in good standing.
State police spokeswoman Maria Finn declined comment because the settlement hasn't been approved by the court. Once it is, the state police must disclose the financial terms under Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know law.
Although both officers fired a total of four shots at Haniotakis, Nassan was the focus of the litigation. That was partly driven by the autopsy which showed Nassan fired the fatal shot and because Fieger referenced the earlier multimillion-dollar settlement involving Nassan in the Haniotakis lawsuit.
Nassan's former attorney, Jerry McDevitt, had argued Fieger--who is perhaps best known for representing assisted suicide Dr. Jack Kevorkian--was trying to “demonize” Nassan by referring to the earlier settlement.
Fieger was also the attorney in the previous lawsuit, in which a federal court jury in March 2008 determined Nassan wrongly killed 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe, of Uniontown, on Christmas Eve 2002.
Nassan and his partner, Cpl. Juan Curry, said they chased Ellerbe when they saw the boy jump out of a stolen SUV.
Internal state police investigators concluded that Nassan shot Ellerbe because the trooper believed Ellerbe had shot at Curry. Nassan testified that he learned later that Curry got tangled climbing over a chain-link fence, and that Curry’s gun fired when it snagged on a link. Ellerbe was unarmed.
The jury awarded more than $28 million to Ellerbe’s father. That was reduced when state police agreed to drop their appeals and pay $12.5 million a few months later. At the time, the largest previous settlement paid in a state police wrongful shooting case was $275,000.