Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Seaside Heights secretly pays $500,000 to settle police excessive force suit

On August 1, 2014, the Borough of Seaside Heights (Ocean County) agreed to pay $500,000 to a Toms River man who sued members of the Seaside Heights Police Department for allegedly using excessive force against him causing a back injury.

In his suit, George Hatze said that on July 4, 2012, he and his family were on the boardwalk to watch the fireworks when Officer Robert MacFarlane "ran his bicycle into" his family "including his 8 year old daughter."  When Hatze asked MacFarlane why he hit his family with his bicycle, MacFarlane allegedly denied it and told him that "this is not a family place."  Then other officers, identified in the complaint as John Does 1-5, arrived and allegedly maced Hatze and kneed him in the back.  Hatze claimed that he "was diagnosed with a compression fracture in his back which may require surgery to repair."

Other than MacFarlane, Officers Thomas Boyd; Stephen Korman, James Hans, and Richard Roemmele were named in the original complaint. By order of the court, the complaint was amended in April 2013 to add Officers Vincent Capette, Russell Moeller, Richard Novotny, and Joseph Vargavic as defendants.

The case is captioned Hatze v. Seaside Heights, Federal Case No. :12-cv-06067 and Hatze'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 Hatze's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $500,000 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 Hatze $500,000 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.