The family of a young Marblehead woman whose leg was shattered during a self-defense class at Marblehead High three years ago has filed a lawsuit alleging negligence both in how the injury happened and how town employees failed to respond to it.

Elizabeth Whitehill was a star athlete and avid runner who was looking forward to a final season of varsity softball, then college soccer in the fall.

But on the morning of April 2, 2009, those plans came to an end, according to the lawsuit, filed Friday in Salem Superior Court by her father, Richard, an attorney.

Whitehill, now 20, was in the class taught by a teacher and a Marblehead police officer when Dean Peralta, another police officer assisting with the class, either pushed or struck her in a simulated attack, according to the lawsuit.

Whitehill fell backward, hitting the floor. Then Peralta fell on top of Whitehill. She heard her left fibula splintering and screamed in pain.

Marblehead officer Lori Knowles, one of the leaders of the class, stopped the exercise, and Peralta stood up.

But neither Knowles, teacher Carla Cefalo nor any of the police officers present called for a nurse or an ambulance and did not even call the school main office or Whitehill's parents, according to the lawsuit.

Whitehill, who was 17 at the time, called her mother, Rebecca, who raced to the school, only to be detained at the main office because no one there knew about the injury or why she was there.

The Whitehills say in court papers that the school minimized the injury, describing it as a "bump/bruise" and "hurt ankle."

Whitehill had to be carried to her mother's car. Her mother immediately drove her to Salem Hospital.

The ride to the hospital and then to a specialist "was excruciatingly painful," and every bump in the road caused her to scream, according to the lawsuit.

Whitehill's bone was splintered, so damaged it could not be set, the family learned from the specialist, and surgery was scheduled for four days later.

Doctors at New England Baptist Hospital put Whitehill's leg together with a metal plate and screws.

Not only did Whitehill miss her senior-year softball season, she was forced to postpone college visits, leaving her uncertain about which school to attend, and she was not allowed to resume running for months, according to the lawsuit.

The Whitehills believe that Peralta used unnecessary force in pushing or striking the girl; that Marblehead failed to adequately train the officers, including Knowles, Peralta and a third, as-yet-unidentified officer, to conduct the class; and that the town also failed to train the teacher and the officers in how to properly respond to a medical emergency or create any policy on what to do in such a case.

Besides Knowles, Peralta, Cefalo and the town, the lawsuit names the Police Department and Chief Robert Picariello; Town Administrator Anthony Sasso; and the School Department, including Superintendent Gregory Maass and principal Ken Weinstein.

The Whitehills are seeking at least $800,000 in damages for pain and suffering from a permanent injury, emotional distress, and economic losses from the injury.

Messages left for Maass, Picariello and the town administrator's office on Friday were not returned.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis may be reached at 978-338-2521 or

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