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NJ Civil Settlements

Winslow Township confidentially paid $110,000 to settle man’s claim that police threw him face-first into a curb.

On January 9, 2020, the Township of Winslow (Camden County) quietly paid $110,000 to settle a Sicklerville man’s excessive force lawsuit arising out of his June 13, 2017 encounter with two Winslow officers.

In his lawsuit, James O’Hara claimed that he, his grandfather and others flagged down Winslow Police Officers Matthew Gibbons and James Haines who were driving their patrol cars. O’Hara’s grandfather, Ramon Gonzales, allegedly had a crow-bar in his hand at the time.

When Gibbons and Haines got out of their patrol cars, Gibbons allegedly screamed for Gonzales “to put that f**king thing down.” Despite O’Hara’s claim that “Gonzales never raised the crow-bar at [Gibbons] or threatened Gibbons whatsoever,” Gibbons allegedly grabbed Gonzales and threw him onto the road. Even after Gibbons secured control of the crow-bar, O’Hara claimed that Gibbons threw Gonzales onto the road again after he got to his feet.

O’Hara, who claimed that he “begged Gibbons to get off of Gonzales,” said that when he “moved toward Gibbons and Gonzales” both officers threw him “to the ground face-first, causing him to strike a curb with his face.” O’Hara claimed that he was taken to Virtua Hospital “where he was diagnosed with a facial contusion and nasal fracture.”

Although charged with Fourth Degree Aggravated Assault, Fourth Degree Obstruction and the Disorderly Persons offense of Resisting Arrest, O’Hara claimed that he ultimately pled guilty only to the Disorderly Person charge.

Winslow Police Chief George Smith was also named as a defendant in the suit.

The case is captioned as James O’Hara v. Winslow Township, et al, Federal Case No. 1:18-cv-14626. O’Hara’s attorney was Thomas J. Mallon of Freehold. The lawsuit and settlement agreement 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.

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 Winslow Township, Chief Smith or either of the officers. All that is known for sure is that Winslow or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather O’Hara $110,000 than take the matters 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.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project