Jul 28, 2014

Ocean City Pays Ex-Con $13,131 to End K-9 Lawsuit

Robert Petnick had claimed he was injured by a K-9 dog during an arrest.

Ocean City Pays Ex-Con $13,131 to End K-9 Lawsuit

Ocean City agreed to pay an ex-convict $13,131.43 to end a lawsuit that claimed he suffered "emotional and physical injuries" during his apprehension by Ocean City police and a K-9 dog.

A settlement agreement signed Dec. 20 dismisses a complaint filed by Robert Petnick against the City of Ocean City and four members of the Ocean City Police Department: Officer Robert Koob, Officer Anthony Fearnhead, Officer John Vogt and Sgt. Jon Campo.

The settlement includes no admission of liability on the part of the city and the officers.

"I agree that you have entered into this settlement agreement and general release solely to avoid the time, expense and continuing distraction of this litigation," Petnick agreed in the settlement.

In a lawsuit filed Dec. 16, 2011, Petnick accused the Ocean City Police Department of using excessive force in his arrest.

On Feb. 26, 2010, Ocean City police officers were responding to a notification by the New Jersey Intensive Supervision Program that Petnick had an outstanding warrant and that he was likely to be found at 2336 Simpson Ave., according to the lawsuit. Officers found Petnick running down the alley between Simpson and Bay avenues on the 2300 block, the suit says.

Petnick, then 46, is 6'1" and 180 pounds, according to the New Jersey Department of Corrections, which has incarcerated him twice on charges that include bail jumping, theft and possession of a controlled dangerous substance.

In the lawsuit, Petnick says he was apprehended and held at gunpoint. He claims he was dragged on the alley and that officers released the K-9 dog Deuce even though he was not resisting arrest at the time.

"The dog bit the plaintiff on the left hand and fingers causing plaintiff to suffer physical and emotional injuries," the suit says.

The suit claims Petnick's constitutional protection against the use of excessive force was violated. It also claims the city tolerates such actions.

"Defendant Ocean City's indifference is demonstrated by a pattern carried out by officers and the failure of Internal Affairs to investigate and sustain legitimate and bona fide instances of assault," the suit claims.

The suit was filed in Superior Court in Cape May County, but it was moved to U.S. District Court in Camden because it involves constitutional questions. The Wildwood law firm Barry, Corrado, Grassi and Gibson represented Petnick.

A release signed by Joseph C. Grassi indicates that he will be paid $10,868.57 from the settlement (including $4,302.86 in costs and $6,565.71 in attorney's fees).

Ocean City taxpayers pay the bill for the legal expenses involved in defending the city and its employees against lawsuits, and they pay for any potential settlement that ends a lawsuit before it goes to trial. Ocean City works with the Atlantic County Joint Insurance Fund (JIF), which insures the city against such claims, when it decides on how to proceed with lawsuits.

The city sometimes decides to settle lawsuits to save taxpayers the expense of going to trial and the potential expense of an unfavorable judgment.

Ocean City recently paid to settle lawsuits filed by Sanitation Department employees claiming racial discrimination ($249,000), another man injured during a K-9 arrest ($60,000), a fire captain alleging wrongful job actions ($115,000), a former lifeguard alleging age-discrimination ($50,000), another lifeguard claiming age-discrimination ($75,000), among other settlements.

City Council has met in executive session recently to discuss other pending litigation against the city.

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