Saturday, March 20, 2010

Penns Grove pays $10,500 to settle fire chief's legal expense claim

On March 9, 2010, Penns Grove Borough (Salem County) agreed to pay $10,500 to a Penns Grove fire chief to cover his legal bills for defending against criminal charges brought against him by Borough Police arising out of a May 26, 2008 fire call.

According to a news article in the May 5, 2008 Today's Sunbeam ("Fire chief faces assault charge" by Heather Simione) Liberty Fire Company No. 1 Chief Joseph A. Grasso responded to a fire alarm at senior citizen housing complex and got into a confrontation with Penns Grove Police Corporal Joseph Schultz regarding the manner in which Grasso was interacting with "a confused and upset 91-year-old resident of the facility." According to the news article, the police said that Grasso "became agitated and began yelling at the elderly woman" when she did not respond to his order to move.

According to the article, after Schultz told Grasso to stop directing abrasive language toward members of the public, "Grasso allegedly ordered Schultz to go outside and direct traffic and began shouting expletives, according to police." Schultz said that Grasso struck him with a closed fist. Grasso was later arrested and charged with aggravated assault, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

After the Salem County Grand Jury declined to indict Grasso on the charges, the Woolwich Township Municipal Court reportedly found not guilty of all remaining charges in January 2009.

Grasso, who had paid $7,500 out-of-pocket for his defense against the criminal charges, sought reimbursement from the Borough. The Borough reportedly refused to reimburse Grasso for his legal fees. Grasso alleges that he made repeated attempts to recover the $7,500 and eventually had his lawyer, Samuel Bullock of Pitman, speak to Penns Grove Solicitor Adam I. Telsey about the matter. According to court filings, Penns Grove offered to reimburse Grasso only $1,500 of the $7,500 in legal fees.

Grasso then retained another law firm, Chance & McCann of Bridgeton, who demanded that the Borough pay Grasso not only the original $7,500 in fees, but also an additional $3,000 for Grasso's legal expenses incurred in collecting the $7,500. The Borough allegedly responded to the firm's $10,500 demand by offering to pay only $7,500.

On December 7, 2009, Grasso filed suit against the Borough demanding "monetary damages in the amount of $10,500." On March 9, 2010, the parties entered into a a settlement agreement calling for Penns Grove to pay Grasso $10,500--the full amount claimed.

The suit is captioned Grasso v Penns Grove, Superior Court Docket No. SLM-L-439-09. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of Grasso's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Penns Grove or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Penns Grove and perhaps its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Grasso $10,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.