Friday, March 8, 2013

Seaside Heights pays $75,000 to settle police excessive force suit

On December 20, 2012, the Borough of Seaside Heights (Ocean County) agreed to pay $75,000 to a Somerset County man who sued members of the Seaside Heights Police Department for allegedly beating him.

In his suit, Michael B. Lavelle of Branchburg said that May 16, 2009, he was walking back to a Seaside Heights house that he had rented for prom weekend.  He said that he mistakenly tried to enter another house, apparently believing that it was the one he had rented.  He alleged that Seaside Police Officers Shawn Heckler, Daniel Bloomquist, Kathleen Erdman, Lance DiFabio and Michael McCurdy "utilized excessive force in arresting [him] . . . causing a facial fracture, lacerations and abrasions."  At the time the suit was filed, trespass, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest charges were pending against Lavelle.

Also named in the suit were Seaside Heights Police Chief Thomas Boyd, Detective Stephen Korman and Sergeants James Hans and Terrence Farley.

The case is captioned Lavelle v. Seaside Heights, Federal Case No. 3:09-cv-03016 and Lavelle's attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of Lavelle's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $75,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Seaside Heights or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Seaside Heights or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Lavelle $75,000 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.