A Buffalo woman who was slashed in the face with a box cutter outside the Chuck E. Cheese's in Amherst has sued town police for improperly responding to a fight in the restaurant that preceded the violent confrontation in the parking lot.
Rhondesia Betton claims in her lawsuit that officers didn't make sure the people who were kicked out of the restaurant following the earlier disturbance had left the scene completely.
Instead, according to a police report and the lawsuit, Latoya Houston waited in her car for Betton and her party to walk out of Chuck E. Cheese's before confronting them again and slicing Betton in the nose and lips. She received about 100 stitches to close the wound.
Betton said she would have taken more precautions while exiting the restaurant if she had any fears that Houston, her sister-in-law, was lingering outside. Instead she said she relied on police to ensure her well-being, and that's why the town and Amherst police share blame for the injury she suffered last March.
Betton also sued the operator of the Chuck E. Cheese's and the owner of the Harlem Road property.
The defendants, including Houston, have not responded to the lawsuit, which was filed Jan. 19 in state Supreme Court. The Town Attorney's Office has hired outside counsel to defend the town and the police department.
"From the town's perspective, although this is an unfortunate event, there's no liability on behalf of the police department," said Town Attorney Stanley J. Sliwa.
The incident at the heart of the legal filing took place on March 8, 2017, at 4994 Harlem Road. The extended Betton and Houston families had gathered at the restaurant for a 4-year-old's birthday party, according to a police report provided to The Buffalo News.
But a longstanding family dispute bubbled over after Latoya Houston and her husband, Elijah, arrived at the restaurant, a witness told police.
The Houstons confronted other members of the party, the witness said, leading to a dispute that prompted a Chuck E. Cheese's manager to call police at 7:33 p.m.
Officers were told no weapons were displayed during the fight, which was verbal and not physical, according to the incident report. By 7:36 p.m., everything appeared calm. And by 7:54 p.m., the "agitated party," later identified as Latoya Houston, had left Chuck E. Cheese's. Police said the manager agreed to let the rest of the party remain inside. Two minutes later, the call was cleared.
However, half an hour later, at 8:27 p.m., Amherst police received another call of a fight, this time in the restaurant parking lot.
Officers didn't find anyone. But a family member who had fled through the restaurant to Campus Drive North later filled them in on her version of what happened.
Ronisha Applewhite told police that Latoya and Elijah Houston confronted her group as they were putting Applewhite's two young children into her car. Applewhite said Elijah Houston threatened them with a gun, and that's when her mother, Rhonda Ricks, steered her back toward the restaurant. Applewhite did not see the slashing.
However, an Amherst officer who was at Erie County Medical Center on an unrelated matter learned Betton had been taken there for treatment.
Betton couldn't talk to police because of her injury.
But Ricks, who was at the hospital, told police that Latoya Houston had gone back to her vehicle to grab a box cutter after Betton joined into the dispute in the parking lot to defend Ricks. Ricks said she grabbed the box cutter from Houston after the attack, and Betton had grabbed Houston's red hairpiece.
Police recovered the box cutter, the hairpiece and the vehicle used to take Betton to the hospital and the Houstons' vehicle, the report states. Both vehicles were coated in blood.
Latoya Houston, who was 28 at the time and who lives in the shadow of ECMC, was arrested later in March and charged with first-degree assault, criminal possession of a weapon and endangering the welfare of a child. She pleaded guilty in August to second-degree assault and was sentenced in November to two years in jail.
Betton, also 28 at the time and a Kensington-Bailey resident, claims in her lawsuit that police had a duty to protect her, and their failure to remove Houston from the parking lot was negligent.
And Betton said CEC Entertainment, the operator of the restaurant, and Sherhar LLC, the property owner, didn't meet their responsibility to ensure her safety while she was at Chuck E. Cheese's. Houston also is named in the suit.
The lawsuit doesn't specify the amount of damages sought. Betton's attorney, Richard A. Nicotra, didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Betton said she couldn't speak to a reporter without checking first with her lawyer.
A spokeswoman for CEC Entertainment did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Sliwa, the town attorney, said police acted appropriately that day and officers responding to the initial call had no legal obligation to make sure Houston had left the grounds entirely.
"They're responding to what they think is a fight, or a verbal altercation, between individuals. When they got there everything is cleared up. It's only after the fact that this woman laid in wait, or left and came back," Sliwa said. "There was no indication of any weapon at that point."
There's no liability unless Betton's attorney can establish a special relationship between Betton and the department. Sliwa argues that did not exist here, although the lawsuit claims there was one.