On July 6, 2022, the Township of Clark (Union County) quietly paid $500,000 to a couple who claimed to have been struck by a car that was being chased by police in a manner that violated the New Jersey Attorney General’s and Clark Police Department’s policies and procedures.
In their lawsuit, Monika Solarska-Gnat and Slawomir M. Gnat, both of Linden, said that on January 9, 2019 Clark patrol officer Theodore McKeown was administering Field Sobriety Tests on Earl L. Downey of East Orange when Mr. Downey got into a BMW 530 he had been driving and fled the scene. Officer McKeown chased Mr. Downey “through numerous intersections . . . at a high rate of speed” into the City of Linden, according to the lawsuit. Mr. Downey, with Officer McKeown in pursuit, reportedly sped eastbound on St. Georges Avenue and collided with a vehicle being driven northbound on DeWitt Terrace by Ms. Solarska-Gnat in which Mr. Gnat was a passenger. According to the lawsuit, the “traffic signal at the [intersection of St. Georges Avenue and DeWitt Terrace] permitted [Ms. Solarska-Gnat’s] path of travel.”
The impact from Mr. Downey’s vehicle caused the couple’s vehicle to enter into the westbound lanes of St. Georges Avenue where it was struck by a Dodge 150. The collisions caused Ms. Solarska-Gnat to suffer a left clavicle fracture, a pelvic fracture and rib fractures and Mr. Gnat to suffer a traumatic brain injury, according to court filings.
In their lawsuit, the couple claimed that since Mr. Downey did not commit a crime of the First or Second Degree, Officer McKeown had no justifiable reason to endanger the public by engaging in a high speed pursuit through a residential area during afternoon rush hour traffic. The couple also claimed that since Officer McKeown knew Downey’s identity, he could have simply arrested him later. Finally, they asserted that Officer McKeown’s pursuit violated the New Jersey Attorney General’s guidelines as well as the Clark Police Department’s Policy and Procedure on Pursuit and Enforceable Stops.
Also named as defendants in the lawsuit was Clark Police Lieutenant Antonio Manata. Of the $500,000 settlement, Ms. Solarska-Gnat and Mr. Gnat each received $250,000.
According to Clark Township’s response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, McKeown is now a sergeant with the police department earning a 2023 salary of $137,430. He has been employed by the Township since October 1, 2014.
The case is captioned Monika Solarska-Gnat, et al v. Township of Clark, Docket No. UNN-L-003547-20 and the couple’s attorney was Eric G. Kahn of Springfield. The civil lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, under which Ms. Solarska-Gnat and Mr. Gnat agreed that the settlement and its terms and amounts be kept confidential. 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 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 employees or officials named in the lawsuit. Nor are the allegations proof of Mr. Downey’s conduct or role in the matter. Ms. Solarska-Gnat’s and Mr. Gnat’s allegations are just that–allegations. All that is known for sure is that Clark Township or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay the couple $500,000 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.