On September 10, 2009, five men who were inmates in the Sussex County Jail accepted a total of $25,830 as full settlement of their lawsuit for damages resulting from raw sewage backing up into their cells. Of the sum, the inmates each received $3,340, for a total of $16,700, while the remainder went for their attorney’s fee and other costs.

The backup, which occurred on June 12, 2005, entered into the cells of inmates Jeffrey Bissonnette, Matthew Everhart, Shawn Laverty, Thomas Piscotty and Jack Asencio, all of whom were being held in isolation in the jail’s disciplinary unit. In their lawsuit, the men claimed that jail officials refused their requests to be removed from their cells and were forced to eat their meals there and to clean up the mess.  The backup was apparently caused by another inmate flushing a blanket down a toilet.

The case is captioned Everhart et al v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Sussex, Case No. 07-cv-02650-FSH . The inmates’ lawyer was Damiano M. Fracasso of Mount Olive.  A June 12, 2007 news article regarding the lawsuit’s filing and the settlement agreements are on-line here.

The settlement agreements require the inmates to keep the settlement terms “as confidential as possible under the circumstances.”  Such confidentiality agreements, however, do not supersede the public’s right to know under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

None of the mens’ allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $25,830 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the County or the its jail officials. All that is known for sure is that Sussex County, and perhaps its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay the men and their lawyer $25,830 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps Sussex County’s 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 Sussex County 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.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]