Thursday, December 3, 2015

Willingboro secretly pays $250,000 to settle police shooting lawsuit.

On October 27, 2015, the Township of Willingboro (Burlington County) agreed to pay $250,000 to a man who was shot in the back and whose dog was killed during a 2011 SWAT raid.

In his suit, Christian M. Whichard claimed that on September 27, 2011 a SWAT team consisting of Willingboro Sergeants James McKendrick and Christopher Vetter and Patrolman Bennie Langford and Cinnaminson Lieutenant Timothy Young broke down the front door of Whichard's home and ordered him and others to get down on the floor.  Whichard claims that while he was face down on the floor, "he was shot in the back with an assault rifle by an officer executing the search warrant."  The complaint alleges that Langford was the shooter.

Whichard's girlfiend, Jessica Evans, testified that the officers shot and killed Whichard's pit bull. Her testimony caused a federal judge to write that "[t]here is evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could conclude that Officer Langford intentionally fired his weapon into Plaintiff’s back as he lay prone on the floor."

The case is captioned Whichard v. Township of Willingboro et al, Federal Case No. 1:13-cv-03606 and Whichard's attorney was Charles H. Nugent of Marlton.  Case documents are on-line here.  Cinnaminson Township and Lieutenant Young were dismissed from the lawsuit on July 17, 2014 and, according to a December 16, 2015 e-mail from Cinnaminson Township Clerk Pamela McCartney, "there was no monetary agreement for dismissal."

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 Whichard's allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $250,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Willingboro or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Willingboro or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Whichard $250,000 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.