On September 2008, the Township of Sparta (Sussex County) agreed to pay a total of $225,000 to ten local residents ($22,500) who sued the Township and its Water Utility claiming that their drinking water contained levels of Uranium in excess of EPA regulations.

In their suit, Suzanne Cohen, Alyson Cohen, Jeffrey Cohen, Sharon Strickland, Ken Strickland, Barrette Strickland, Sally Finegan, Christina Finegan, Stephen Finegan and Gerald Finegan claimed that Township and Water Utility officials were negligent and failed to warn them of the hazard and “acted with conscious disregard of [their] safety with malice and oppression for which punitive and exemplary damages should be imposed.”

The case is captioned Cohen et al v. Township of Sparta, et al, Docket No. SSX-L-361-05 and the residents’ attorney was Shari M. Blecher of Princeton. 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 Plaintiffs’ allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $225,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Sparta or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Sparta or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the Plaintiffs $225,000 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.

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