On March 1, 2016, Camden County paid $9,000 to settle a wheelchair-bound inmate’s claims against corrections officers that had previously been dismissed by a federal judge but were later reinstated by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.  This settlement was in addition to $7,000 the inmate received on March 1, 2011 to settle his claims against a jail guard who allegedly pepper-sprayed himout of anger and not to protect himself.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit is Robert L. Small who brought suit against jail guards alleging abuse–most of it relating to his wheelchair–while he was lodged at the Camden County Jail in 2005 as a pretrial detainee.  He claimed that various officers confiscated his wheelchair which forced him to remain in bed and in some cases gave him a jail-issue wheelchair that lacked leg rests. 

All of Small’s complaints were dismissed by a June 25, 2010 Order except for his claim that Officer Joseph Whittick sprayed him in the face with pepper spray even though Small posed no threat to him.  According to a judge’s written decision, another Corrections Officer, Donna Webster, witnessed the spraying and testified that right before Whittick sprayed him, Small “was actually backing away from the door with his hands in a surrender motion.” 

A July 20, 2013 decision by the appeals court reinstated Smalls complaints against Officers’ conduct occurring on June 18 and June 28, 2005 where Small alleged that Officers (no first name given) Worlds,  David Crossan and Sergio Monroe, Sergeant (no first name given) Melendez and Captain Charles Walker improperly confiscated his wheelchair.

The case is captioned Smalls v. Camden County, et al, Federal Case No. 1:06-cv-01363 and Small’s attorneys were J. Philip Kirchner, Lizanne V. Hackett, Nina M. Varughese, and Rachel S. Wolfe of Cherry Hill.  Case documents are on-line here.

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 Camden or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Small $16,000 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.

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