Monday, August 26, 2013

Denville pays $400,000 to settle police fatal shooting suit

On June 10, 2013, the Township of Denville (Morris County) agreed to pay $400,000 to the estate of a 21-year-old man who was fatally shot in 2008 by Township police.

In its suit, the Estate of Reuben W. Martinez, II claimed that Martinez was pulled over for speeding by Patrolmen Richard Byrne and Daniel Fernandez on June 26, 2008.  Byrne allegedly jumped into the passenger seat of Martinez's car with his weapon drawn after Martinez refused to obey verbal commands.  At the same time, Fernandez allegedly grabbed Martinez's head through the driver window and "bashed it repeatedly on the door frame."  This caused Martinez to put the car in gear and drive away while Byrne was still in the car.  According to the lawsuit, "[u]ltimately Officer Byrne shot plaintiff's decedent Martinez multiple times after Martinez failed to stop the car."

Also named in the suit were Denville Police Chief Christopher Wagner.

The case is captioned Miles v. Denville, Federal Case No. 2:10-cv-0310 and Martinez's attorney was Shelley L. Stangler of Springfield.  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 Martinez's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $400,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Denville or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Denville or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Martinez $400,000 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.