$5 million wrongful death claim made against city of Modesto, Police Department in mother's death

kvaline@modbee.comDecember 23, 2013 

Amanda Pennaluna holds daughter Sheila. Pennaluna died of smoke and soot inhalation June 22. Her family claims officers did not do enough when they responded to a 911 call Pennaluna made in June. Pennaluna eventually set fire to her home and died of smoke inhalation.

NICOLE SULLIVAN — courtesy photo

— A family has filed a $5 million wrongful-death claim against Modesto and its Police Department, alleging that officers abandoned a distraught, suicidal single mom holding a knife to her head, who later died after setting her home on fire.

Amanda Pennaluna, 26, of Modesto died of smoke and soot inhalation June 22 about 16 hours after firefighters went to her Ottawa Court home. She is survived by her 4-year-old daughter, Sheila, whom officers had taken with them after leaving the home. No one else was in the home.

Pennaluna’s sister, Nicole Sullivan of Oakdale, filed the claim on behalf of Sheila last week. Sullivan is Sheila’s legal guardian. They are represented by San Jose attorney Richard Alexander.

The claim says Pennaluna was 5 feet tall and weighed 110 pounds and that at least 10 officers eventually responded to the 911 call she made June 21 about 10:40 p.m. Sullivan said her sister still would be alive if the officers had disarmed her and taken her into protective custody.

“She should not have been left alone,” Sullivan said in an interview.

The claim says Modesto officers are trained in crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but in this case, officers were negligent and careless in preventing Pennaluna from committing suicide.

But a McGeorge School of Law professor said cases like this can be difficult to win in court. “I think it’s a very tough case,” John Myers said. “Even if the police had a duty (to protect Pennaluna), police are not psychiatrists. It’s always easy in hindsight to say they made a mistake.”

Modesto Police Chief Galen Carroll said he could not comment on this case, but he issued this statement by email: “Anytime a child loses a parent it is tragic. My heart and those of the men and women of the Modesto Police Department go out to Sheila … on her loss … .

“While I am not going to comment on the current case due to pending litigation against the city, it is important to remember that MPD officers at times are placed in situations where there is no good outcome possible, especially when dealing with individuals suffering from mental illness and-or severe drug abuse.”

The claim lays out this sequence of events:

• Pennaluna made a bizarre 911 call about 10:40 p.m. June 21 in which she asked for more time to get her daughter dressed before handing Sheila over to a SWAT team outside her home. There was no SWAT team or any police outside Pennaluna’s home when she called 911.

• Based on the 911 call, two Modesto police officers were dispatched to Pennaluna’s home to check on her. They arrived at 11:19 p.m. to find Pennaluna had locked Sheila out of the home. One officer found a large amount of vomit by the front door and feared Pennaluna might have overdosed or was sick. The officers heard moaning when they entered the home.

• Pennaluna was standing in the bathroom with a knife in her right hand, held over her head. The officers ordered her to drop the knife and called for an ambulance and backup. At least 10 officers responded. A sergeant took charge and spent several minutes trying to convince Pennaluna to drop the knife and surrender.

“The MPD decided to leave Amanda,” the claim states, “knowing that she was unable to care for herself. The actual time the MPD closed the door, ceased its effort to protect and rescue and then abandon Amanda is not known.”

Modesto Regional Fire Authority Division Chief Sean Slamon said firefighters were dispatched to a fire at the home at 1:54 a.m. June 22. He said firefighters found a woman inside the home and determined she had set the fire. She was taken to a Modesto hospital and transferred to a Stockton hospital, where she died at 6:45 p.m. that day.

Sullivan said her sister was friendly, outgoing, had a great sense of humor and was a devoted mom. She said Pennaluna had been living with a family friend on Ottawa Court for about a year. Pennaluna had talked about getting her high school equivalency certificate and a job.

Sullivan said the family friend told her Pennaluna was fine when he left for work a few hours before she called 911. The family friend did not return a phone call from The Bee.

Pennaluna did not drink or use drugs, her sister said. And although Pennaluna had suffered from depression at times, Sullivan said her sister never had a breakdown before that June night. “I never expected her to do anything like this,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said one reason she filed the claim is that she believes police have not told her everything about what happened that night. Sullivan and Pennaluna’s mother committed suicide several years ago, and Pennaluna had said that was something she would not do to her own daughter.

Sullivan said she also is pursuing this so the Modesto police “don’t let something like this happen again.”

Myers, the McGeorge professor, reviewed the claim and the relevant court decisions and laws at the request of The Bee and said the family and its attorney will have a difficult time prevailing in court. He said state law and the courts have held that while police officers have a duty to protect and serve the public, that duty does not extend to individuals.

“Some people think, understandably, that the police have a duty when they see a person in trouble to automatically intervene,” he said, “but they don’t have to. … They are not professional good Samaritans. Their duty is to the public at large.”

Myers said the law gives officers discretion in deciding whether to take potentially suicidal or distraught people who pose a threat to themselves or others into protective custody.

And in August, Myers said, the California Supreme Court issued an opinion in which it said it never has addressed what police officers must do in incidents in which they don’t use deadly force while coming to the aid of a suicidal person.

Alexander – the attorney representing Sullivan and her niece – said he expects Modesto to reject the claim, and he then will file a lawsuit. He contends the officers’ actions were not reasonable given the circumstances. Alexander said this case may be the one that addresses the issue the state Supreme Court raised in August.

“This may be the case that provides the definition,” he said.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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