By Peter Murphy and Ana Flor
BRASILIA (Reuters) - A former Brazilian prostitute plans to sue the United States embassy and five of its personnel for injuries sustained outside a strip club late last year, complicating the second of two embarrassing incidents to emerge recently involving American officials and sex workers in South America.
Romilda Aparecida Ferreira, 31, and her lawyer said they plan to file suit for injuries, medical expenses, lost income, and psychological trauma after an embassy van ran over her and left her stranded in the club parking lot with a broken collarbone, punctured lung and other injuries. The incident occurred December 29 when an embassy driver was dispatched to the club to pick up three marines and one civilian staffer.
A civil suit would compound a case in which Brazilian prosecutors have already said they are considering criminal charges, including assault and failure to provide assistance to an injured person. It also threatens to further tarnish the image of overseas U.S. personnel in the wake of a separate scandal involving U.S. Secret Service members and prostitutes in Cartagena, Colombia, earlier this month.
Little noticed at the time, the incident in Brasília, Brazil's capital, gained traction this week when a local reporter asked U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, then on a visit to the country, about what happened. Panetta said the United States had investigated the matter, "severely punished" the marines, and pulled them out of Brazil.
Few additional details from the incident have been provided by U.S. officials, including the nature of an unresolved offer Ferreira's lawyers say was made by the embassy to compensate her in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement.
But the former prostitute, still recovering from surgery and now starting a career as a pet shop owner, detailed her account of the evening to Reuters in an interview Wednesday at her attorneys' office.
Ferreira said she, along with her co-workers, first met the four Americans over tequila and whiskey inside the strip club. "Like any other night, we sat down with the guys to drink and chat," she said.
Before long, she added, "we settled on a price and whose house we would go to." But problems ensued when the group proceeded to leave the club.
Ferreira said she was forced out of the van by one of the men when she attempted to join some of her colleagues, who had already entered the vehicle. She said she panicked when the man grabbed her, so she attempted to hold onto the van, but fell to the ground, hit her head and lost consciousness.
After she fell, her lawyers said, the man told the van driver to go. The vehicle's back wheel then drove over Ferreira. The attorneys said the driver probably did not realize she was there.
The van briefly stopped after running over the woman, they added, and then drove off for good.
In a Washington press briefing on Wednesday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman confirmed Ferreira was run over, but gave a conflicting account of one particular. Ferreira, she said, tried to open the door once the van was already moving.
Ferreira, who worked as a stripper at the club for three years, said she was traumatized by the incident, which kept her hospitalized for 12 days.
Upon her release from the hospital, she said, embassy officials visited her to seek her account of the incident and then offered her nearly 4,000 reais ($2,100), which she rejected. Her lawyers said they then followed up with the embassy, but failed to reach an agreement on payment and a condition that would have required Ferreira to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
A U.S. embassy spokesman confirmed there was an inconclusive discussion about compensation, but was unaware of the exact details.
Ferreira's lawyers said they are monitoring prosecutors' progress with potential criminal charges before proceeding with a lawsuit. Damages, they say, would help compensate for Ferreira's injuries, mental suffering and costs she incurred in her recovery.
Using savings and a loan from a friend, Ferreira said, she paid 18,000 reais ($9,574) for corrective surgery on a botched first attempt to set her broken collar bone. The bone still appears swollen and dark scars still mar her elsewhere, even her legs.
Ferreira also quit her life as a prostitute and used the rest of her money to start a pet shop and grooming service.
"I won't go back to it," she says of her former life, adding that the scars and a misshapen bone now make her feel self-conscious. "How could I dance again?"
($1 = 1.8806 Brazilian reais)
(Additional reporting by Hugo Bachega; Editing by Paulo Prada and Lisa Shumaker)