Saturday, August 20, 2016

$250,000 paid to settle excessive force lawsuit against Vineland police.

On July 25, 2016, a handwritten settlement agreement was drawn up calling for a $250,000 settlement payment to be made to a Pittsgrove man who sued Vineland (Cumberland County) Police for allegedly beating him into unconsciousness and recklessly driving him around unrestrained causing him to bounce around inside the police car and injure himself.

In his lawsuit, John Panarello, said that he and his wife Sheri had an acrimonious relationship with their next door neighbors, Antonio and Jeanne Ramos, mostly concerning the boundary line between their adjacent properties.  Antonio Ramos was employed by the City of Vineland as a police detective. 

An argument erupted on February 11, 2010 during which Ramos allegedly told Panarello that he would get the "brotherhood" of Vineland officers to retaliate against him. This comment caused Panarello to file an Internal Affairs complaint against Ramos which Panarello said resulted in Ramos being disciplined.

The bickering ensued until July 10, 2010 when Sergeant William Bontcue came to Panarello's home to speak to him about his alleged harassment of Ramos.  Panarello claimed that Bontcue was aggressive, slapped a video camera out of Panarello's hand, shoved him and told him that if he bothered Ramos again, he would be arrested and "taught a lesson."

The same day, according to the civil complaint, Panarello was weed-whacking along his privacy fence that bordered Ramos' property.  This irritated Ramos who allegedly responded by squirting Panarello in the face with a garden hose.  According to Panarello, the water in the hose was very hot from sitting in the sun and burned his face.  The two then got into a struggle which resulted in Panarello retreating to his house to call police.

At the same time, Ramos' wife, Jeanne, called police and reported that Panarello attacked her husband with a 2 x 6.  Panarello maintained that he only used the wood to block the water stream from Ramos' hose.  Sergeant Jeffrey Riggione, in response to Jeanne's call, "ordered all available police units to the Ramos property."  The following officers responded: Adam Shaw, Matthew Laielli, Antonio Ramos, Diane Fava, William Newman, Chris Rodriquez, Jeffrey Riggione, Brian Armstrong, Stephen Houbary and Adam Austino.

Laielli, Shaw and Armstrong allegedly entered Panarello's house held him down on his dining room floor and "beat [him] about the face and head with closed fists until [he] was unconscious."  The alleged beating was done in the presence of Panarello's wife Sheri and their seven year old daughter Angelina.

According to newspaper accounts, Armstrong, who drove Panarello to the police station, placed him in an unrestrained cruiser that "stopped and accelerated abruptly" to cause Panarello additional injuries.  Panarello also accused Officer James H. Day of pepper-spraying him in the face while he was handcuffed at the police station.

On February 8, 2016 and July 7, 2016, United States District Court Judge Robert B. Kugler dismissed many of Panarello's claims and dismissed several defendants from the suit. However, warrantless arrest and entry charges against Laielli and Shaw survived Kugler's dismissal orders as excessive force claims against Armstrong and Day and assault and battery claims against Ramos.

The case is captioned Panarello v. City of Vineland, et al, Federal Case No. 1:12-cv-04165 and Panarello's attorney was Louis P. McFadden, Jr. of Northfield.  The complaint is on-line here and the settlement agreement is on-line here.

It is presently unknown how much of the $250,000 settlement was underwritten by Vineland and how much, if any, was paid by Ramos.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court.  Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Vineland or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Panarello $250,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision 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 resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.