Parking employee sues Duke University and a top university administrator

A contract parking employee filed a lawsuit Monday against Tallman Trask III and Duke University, alleging that the highly ranked Duke administrator hit her with his car and called her a racial epithet.

Shelvia Underwood, a traffic control officer with McClaurin Parking and Transportation Management, accused Trask of battery, negligence, civil conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The allegations resulted from an incident on Aug. 30, 2014, when Underwood was on traffic duty at Duke before a home football game against Elon University.

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The lawsuit claims that Underwood was working at Duke’s Chapel Drive circle when a white man driving a Porsche was attempting to gain access to the West Campus Quad. The driver was later identified as Trask.

Underwood, the lawsuit said, put her hand up to stop the driver while she assisted a pedestrian. According to the suit, she was struck by the car, landing on its hood before jumping off.

“After picking herself up off the ground, Plaintiff looked at the driver and exclaimed, ‘Really sir? Really?’” the lawsuit said.

Underwood then asked to see Trask’s parking permit and said if he did not have one, he would not be allowed entry to the quad. “Defendant Trask banged his hands on the steering wheel while gritting his teeth and yelled, ‘This road is not closed!’”

Trask repeated the phrase, the complaint states, while Underwood began to call for backup. At that point, Trask held up two parking permits. “Upon seeing the permits, Plaintiff said, ‘Well there you go,’” the lawsuit said. “In response, Mr. Trask angrily yelled, ‘dumb, stupid, dumb, stupid (racial slur),’ as he sped off,” the complaint said.

A Duke spokesman said the university does not comment on pending litigation. Efforts to reach Trask and his attorney were unsuccessful Monday. Trask has denied using a racial slur.

Underwood immediately told her supervisors she had been struck. She also reported the incident to Duke University Police and sought medical treatment on Sept. 1, when she was diagnosed with a muscle contusion and possible fractured elbow, the lawsuit said.

She was contacted by a Duke police detective, who met with Underwood on Sept. 3 and Sept. 4. The detective asked if Underwood would drop the matter if Trask apologized, the lawsuit said. Underwood said if the apology were sincere, she would, and signed a report. She was initially refused access to the report and was only given a copy of an incomplete report, according to the complaint.

A few weeks later, the lawsuit said, Underwood was approached by Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president of administration at Duke, who handed her a note that said, “I very much regret the incident before the Elon Football game. I should have been more patient and apologize. Tallman Trask.”

According to Duke’s website, Cavanaugh oversees the university’s police department.

Underwood’s complaint alleges that Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity investigated the incident but did not cite Trask for any wrongdoing and did not take action against him.

Underwood seeks compensatory damages of $25,000 for each of the four alleged claims and unspecified punitive damages.

The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper, reported that Trask initially denied the incident until he was presented with a copy of the apology note. He admitted hitting the attendant but denied the racial slur.

The paper printed a statement by Trask, who pointed out that no witnesses heard the N-word. “None of them heard me saying what she claimed I said, quite simply because I didn’t say it,” Trask said in the statement to the Chronicle. “It is a complete fabrication.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill