Evidence Issue for Woman Suing Over North Dakota Protest Injury

By BLAKE NICHOLSON | November 30, 2018

A New York City woman who suffered a severe arm injury while protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline in North Dakota two years ago is suing law enforcement even though she does not yet have evidence that might help her prove law officers were to blame.

Sophia Wilansky was injured during a violent November 2016 clash between protesters and police during the unsuccessful months-long protest in North Dakota against the $3.8 billion pipeline that began carrying oil to Illinois in June 2017.

Wilansky, who was 21 at the time, suffered a left arm injury in an explosion and has since had five surgeries. Protesters allege the blast was caused by a concussion grenade thrown by officers, but police maintain it was caused by a propane canister that protesters rigged to explode. The cause is still unknown, and no one has been charged in the blast despite a criminal investigation.

She sued the federal government in February, seeking access to shrapnel and clothing taken from her while she was hospitalized. Her attorney at the time and her father, Wayne Wilansky, both told The Associated Press that she wanted the evidence to bolster an excessive force lawsuit she planned to eventually file against police.

A federal judge in August rejected the request, saying in part that Wilansky didn’t have a good argument for why she couldn’t file a civil lawsuit without the seized property.

Wilansky on Nov. 19 sued law enforcement officials and Morton County for alleged excessive force, assault, negligence, emotional distress and defamation. The lawsuit seeks “millions of dollars” in damages.

One of Wilansky’s attorneys, Benjamin Stoll, declined comment on whether they will seek the shrapnel and clothing through the discovery process, in which attorneys exchange evidence. Calls to Wayne Wilansky were not answered.

She alleges that an unknown law officer threw a flashbang device directly at her, and that officers laughed rather than helped her as she lay on the ground in agony after the explosion. She says law enforcement later made untrue and defamatory statements about her injury.

“Despite enduring numerous painful surgeries to save her arm from amputation and a grueling ongoing rehabilitation, Sophia still has almost no feeling in or ability to use her left hand and forearm,” another of her attorneys, Edward Barnidge, said in court documents. “She is disabled and disfigured, and she will likely remain so permanently.”

Law enforcement hasn’t commented on the lawsuit or responded in court. U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Miller has given defendants until Jan. 22 to do so. Defense attorney Randall Bakke has successfully asked to have a “gruesome” photo of Wilansky’s injury that accompanied the complaint sealed from public view, saying it could “inflame” people and possibly taint a jury pool.

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