Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Howell Township confidentially paid out $350,000 to settle lawsuit filed by estate of man who died in police custody.

On November 6, 2017, the Township of Howell (Monmouth County) quietly agreed to pay $350,000 to the estate of man whose lawsuit claimed he died as a result of excessive force applied during a weekend-long music festival.

In her lawsuit, Theresa Taylor, the administratrix of the estate of Timothy J. Harden and Harden's sister, claimed that Harden was working as a volunteer for a September 3, 2015 music festival called the Souper Groove "where alcohol and drugs were available, open and obvious to the public, festival staff and/or security personnel."  During the event, Harden allegedly had a "medical and/or psychiatric episode" which resulted in Howell police being called and Harden being restrained by festival staff and security personnel "with excessive and unreasonable force."  Howell officers reportedly also applied excessive force to Harden "including choking him and fracturing his thyroid cartilage."  The lawsuit alleged that the actions and inactions of the festival staff and the Howell officers caused Harden's death.

Other than the Township and Howell Township Police Chief Andrew A. Kudriack, Jr., the Priedaine New Jersey Latvian Society, Souper Souper, LLP and the LLP's owners were named as defendants in the lawsuit.  The $350,000 payment releases only the Township defendants so there may have been additional sums paid by the private-party defendants.

The case is captioned Taylor, et al v. Howell Township, et al, Federal Case No. 3:15-cv-08043 and Taylor'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 disclosing the settlement's terms to others, including the media.  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 the 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 Howell or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Harden's estate $350,000 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.