Thursday, October 22, 2015

Union County secretly pays $200,000 to settle inmate wrongful death suit.

On September 23, 2015, the County of Union agreed to pay $200,000 to the estate of a man who was killed while lodged in the Union County Jail.

In her suit, Diane McKernan, the mother of William Parisio, claimed that on February 17, 2014 jail officers "used excessive force in unnecessarily subduing [Parisio] thereby cutting off his airway and preventing him from breathing."  The lawsuit further alleged that jail officials "negligently failed to promptly recognize William Parisio was not breathing, failed to promptly call for medical assistance and failed to promptly institute resuscitative procedures."  Parisio died on the same day.

The settlement agreement settles the estate's claims against Union County, the jail and their officials and employees.  On July 29, 2015, the estate separately settled its claims against Correctional Health Services, Inc.  (CHC), a private corporation under contract with Union County that provides medical care to jail inmates.  Since CHC is private, its records are beyond the reach of the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) making it impossible to force disclosure of how much money CHC paid to Parisio's estate.

The case is captioned McKernan v. County of Union et al, Federal Case No. 2:15-cv-01675 and estate's attorney was Anthony J. Macri of Parsippany.  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 the estate's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $200,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Union or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Union or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the estate $200,000 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.