San Francisco: Tiger attack victims file suit in federal court

John Coté, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, November 13, 2008
 
(11-12) 13:42 PST San Francisco – — Two San Jose brothers who survived a Christmas Day tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo have filed a long-expected lawsuit against the city, zoo and others, claiming slander and civil rights violations in the aftermath of an incident that drew international attention.
 
The lawsuit by Amritpal “Paul” Dhaliwal, 20, and Kulbir Dhaliwal, 24, also contends they were permanently scarred by the escaped tiger, which killed Paul Dhaliwal’s close friend Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, before police shot and killed the animal. They’re seeking unspecified damages.
 
The lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, contends the city and zoo were negligent on multiple fronts, including keeping the 243-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana in an enclosure that had walls lower that what is recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They also say the zoo ignored workers’ warnings about the wall height.
 
It also contends that Kulbir Dhaliwal wasn’t attacked until after an employee refused to allow him into the safety of a zoo cafe. That incident occurred about 20 minutes after the tiger leapt from its grotto and initially attacked Paul Dhaliwal before turning on Sousa.
Kulbir Dhaliwal contends his federal civil rights were violated because he was deprived the use of his BMW M3, the car the three took to the zoo. Police impounded the car during their investigation but didn’t seek a court order to search it until they had already had the car for about two weeks, according to the lawsuit filed by Mark Geragos’ law firm.
 
The suit also accuses Sam Singer, a well-known crisis management spokesman whose firm was retained by the zoo after the attack, of libel and slander.
 
The Dhaliwals contend Singer and city officials engaged in a smear campaign to suggest the young men were disreputable and had taunted the tiger before the escape.
 
“There’s no merit to the lawsuit whatsoever,” Singer said. “More importantly, I’d like to remind people that Mr. Geragos was the one who said his client, Michael Jackson, was a perfectly normal human being and Scott Peterson was an innocent man. I leave it up to the judgment of the public as to how accurate he is on any of his claims.”
 
Geragos and attorneys at his firm did not return calls seeking comment. A zoo official also declined to comment. City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office has said the city is not liable and directed the brothers to file a claim with the San Francisco Zoological Society, the nonprofit that operates the zoo.
 
Paul Dhaliwal, sentenced in August to 16 months in state prison on a probation violation in Santa Clara County, is to appear today in Alameda County Superior Court, where he is charged with shoplifting video game equipment from three Target stores, authorities said.
 
An attorney for Sousa’ parents, Michael Cardoza, said the negative public perception about the Dhaliwals was probably a key factor in filing their lawsuit in federal court, where the jury pool is drawn from counties including Marin and San Mateo, rather that just San Francisco.
 
“There’s so much speculation that, ‘Oh, they taunted the tiger,’ ” Cardoza said. “When you talk to San Franciscans, they say ‘They’re the kids who taunted the tiger,’ when there’s no proof of that at all.”
 
Sousa’s parents will sue the city before the year is over, Cardoza said.
 
Complete coverage
 
Read The Chronicle’s coverage at sfgate.com/tigerattack.
 
E-mail John Coté at jcote@sfchronicle.com.
 
 
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Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org
 
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