Employee who was hit by car files lawsuit against Executive Vice President Trask, Duke

Tallman Trask photographed in his office with an old Coke bottle, Nehi bottle, and coal from the old steam plant.
Tallman Trask photographed in his office with an old Coke bottle, Nehi bottle, and coal from the old steam plant.

Shelvia Underwood, the contract parking employee who alleged that Executive Vice President Tallman Trask used a racial slur after hitting her with his car, has filed a lawsuit against Trask and Duke.

The complaint, filed Monday afternoon in Durham County Superior Court, lists four counts—battery, negligence, civil conspiracy and obstruction of justice—and requests compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $25,000 for each count.

Trask is the University’s primary financial and administrative officer.

Underwood seeks compensatory damages due to the “pain and suffering as a result of the intentional and malicious conduct by defendants,” according to the complaint, in addition to punitive damages for the “willful and wanton conduct of the defendants.”

The complaint, which can be viewed in its entirety below, lists the second defendant as Duke, which is represented by Pamela Bernard, vice president and general counsel for the University.

"Duke followed its standard operating procedures in responding to Ms. Underwood's allegations," Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, wrote in an email Tuesday. "The University will vigorously defend any suggestion that it did not act appropriately in this situation."

Since the incident, which occurred Aug. 30, 2014, both Trask and Underwood hired attorneys—Dhamian Blue of Blue Stephens and Fellers, Trinity ‘00 and Law School ‘03, and Donald Huggins of Hairston Lane PA, respectively.

"Our position is that this is the elite protecting the elite, and that Duke failed to police its own," Huggins said Tuesday.

Regarding the first count of battery, the filing alleges that Trask intended to cause, and did cause, a “harmful contact with Plaintiff’s person.” Underwood said previously that after the incident she was diagnosed with a muscle contusion and possible fractured elbow.

The complaint also states that because Trask’s actions showed “reckless disregard for the rights of Plaintiff,” Underwood is entitled to an award of punitive damages against Trask and the University that will be determined by the “trier of fact.”

For the second count of negligence, the document states that if Underwood’s claims do not give rise to a claim for relief under the theory of battery, alternatively, Trask was negligent.

The complaint notes that Trask owed Underwood a duty of “reasonable care” that is owed by every driver, and that he failed to keep. It alleges that he failed to act as a “reasonably careful and prudent person” by driving his vehicle in a reckless manner that endangered Underwood’s life.

Regarding the third count of civil conspiracy, the filing states that the University prevented a proper criminal investigation. It specifically notes that Trask and the University entered an agreement to protect the public image of both Trask and the University. Trask oversees Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh, who directly oversees the Duke University Police Department.

For the fourth count of obstruction of justice, the complaint alleges that the investigation performed by DUPD was conducted so that Trask was able to avoid civil and criminal liability, hindering legal justice.

In response to the allegations, Trask previously released the following statement to The Chronicle:

“As I was driving to the home football game against Elon in August 2014, I was stopped in the traffic circle (between Flowers and Chapel Drives) by a parking attendant I did not recognize, who gruffly said ‘this road is closed.’ I told her I park on the quad, and have every day for almost 20 years. She told me to go park somewhere else. My regular parking pass, which is good in all spaces on campus at all times, was hanging from my rear view mirror.

There was a special all access pass for the Elon game in the corner of the windshield. I pointed to that and thought she was satisfied. She stepped away, but after I started moving (maybe five feet) she stepped back in front of the car. I slammed on the brakes and her hand ended up on my left fender. I did not intentionally hit her. By then I was extremely frustrated and said ‘how many permits do I need to show you?’ in a somewhat heated voice. I regret that I lost my patience and that’s what my note of apology was about.

I learned several days later that Ms. Underwood had filed a complaint and claimed I had said something else. Her allegations were separately and independently investigated by the Duke Police and the Office of Institutional Equity, both of whom interviewed all witnesses. None of them heard me saying what she claimed I said, quite simply because I didn’t say it. It is a complete fabrication.

I had assumed this was resolved more than a year ago until I received a letter last November from a Raleigh attorney threatening to sue me (not clear for what) unless I paid her an unspecified sum. I declined to do so then and do not intend to do so now.”

The full complaint filed Monday can be viewed below:

Shelvia Underwood Filed Complaint Against Tallman Trask, Duke

This story was updated Tuesday afternoon to include quotes from Huggins and Schoenfeld. Check back for updates on this developing story.

Correction: This story was updated Thursday to correct Huggins' quote to "police its own." An earlier version of the story incorrectly quoted Huggins as saying "protect its own." The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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