Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hammonton pays $70,000 to settle claim that police subjected man to dog bite.

On March 25, 2014, the Town of Hammonton (Atlantic County) agreed to pay $70,000 to a Collings Lake man who sued members of the Hammonton Police Department for allegedly directing a police dog "to attack and repeatedly bite" him.

In his suit, Robert Keeler said that on April 8, 2009, he was falsely stopped, searched and detained by Officers Tom Percodani and Richard Jones.  Keeler said that despite a lawful basis to detain or arrest him, the officers turned the dog on him which constituted "police brutality and assault and battery." He alleged that out of the five criminal complaints filed against him, four were downgraded to disorderly persons charges and one was administratively dismissed.

Named in the settlement but not the suit was Hammonton Police Corporal James Pinto.

The case is captioned Keeler v. Hammonton, Federal Case No. 1:11-cv-02745 and Keeler's attorney was Jerry C. Goldhagen of Linwood.  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 Keeler's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $70,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Hammonton or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Hammonton or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Keeler $70,000 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.