Saturday, June 19, 2010

Highlands Fire Department pays $7,500 to settle sexual assault lawsuit

On March 22, 2010, the Borough of Highlands (Monmouth County) and the Highlands Fire Department agreed to pay $7,500 to a Colts Neck woman who claimed that she was sexually assaulted by a member of the fire department in the firehouse.

In her suit, the woman said that she became separated from her boyfriend on September 3, 2005 while she was at the Sugar Shack in Highlands. She claimed that while she was walking around town looking for her boyfriend, she was approached by Gary Branin, Jr., who was on a bicycle, who "under the pretext and ruse of helping [the woman], coaxed and lured her inside the confines of the Highlands Fire Department." She claims that Branin sexually assaulted her, that she reported the assault to the police and that Branin "was convicted and ultimately sentenced to serve a term in State Prison."

She based her suit against the fire department for "retaining Branin as a member of the Highlands Fire Department and permitt[ing] him to have unsupervised access to the premises . . . when they knew or should have known that he was not fit to be a member."

The lawsuit continues against Branin individually. The woman's attorney was Darren M. Gelber of Woodbridge. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of the woman's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $7,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Highlands, the fire department or any of their officials (except for Branin). All that is known for sure is that Highlands or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the woman $7,500 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.