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An explosion at a New Jersey recycling plant that left one man dead and another badly burned has resulted in a $3.5 million civil verdict, and, in an unusual separate action, criminal indictments. Two managers at the plant and the two companies that operate it were recently indicted on alleged aggravated manslaughter, assault and environmental charges in the 1997 blast. But a week earlier, on April 2, a civil court jury found against the recycling companies and awarded $3 million to the burned worker and $500,000 to the estate of the worked who was killed. Lawyers and prosecutors say it is very unusual for a civil action to precede a criminal matter in this way. But Paul S. Chiaramonte, the Passaic County, N.J., senior assistant prosecutor who finally brought the criminal case, said there were “intervening factors” that delayed it — including federal interest in the case and a change of prosecutors. “Criminal investigations take as long as they need,” he said. The fact that the civil trial verdict preceded the criminal indictment was “just fortuitous.” However, Jim Segretto, a North Bergen, N.J., attorney for the two recycling companies, called the criminal prosecution — just as the statute of limitations was about to kick in — “not only unusual but bizarre. “We had an accident, but to suggest it was done with gross indifference to human life is ridiculous,” Segretto said. Both cases date to Dec. 1, 1997, when Darisz Wisniewski of Garfield, N.J., was compacting paper and cans of glitter hair spray at the Joseph Damato Paperstock plant in Paterson. A co-worker, Victor Lopez of Paterson, started a forklift. A spark apparently ignited gases that had leaked from the cans. Wisniewski was killed and Lopez was burned on the face, hands and legs. In the six-day civil trial, the recycling company, Joseph Damato Paperstock, a subsidiary, Annex Paperstock, and a realty company that owns the property — all owned by Phil Damato — were found negligent. In the criminal case, two managers who supervised the recycling plant — Joseph Paul Damato and a cousin, Joseph Frank Damato, both relatives of Phil Damato — have been charged along with Damato Paperstock and Annex Paperstock. Lopez’s attorney, Richard Weiner of Montvale, N.J., said it was not yet known if the civil award would be appealed. Lopez and the Wisniewski family filed separate civil suits, according to Weiner. After years of delay as the parties awaited criminal action in the matter, the civil cases were eventually rolled into one suit and put on the front burner. Lopez v. Damato, No. PAS-L-3783-98, and Wisniewski Estate v. Damato, No. PAS-L-4304-99. “We started discovery a year after the accident, but couldn’t complete discovery because the criminal matter came first,” said Weiner. “It was investigated for several years at the state and county level and by the U.S. Attorney and the Environmental Protection Agency for environmental problems, but never acted on.” Weiner said he expects a lot of the evidence from the civil trial will be introduced in the criminal case, including testimony from expert witnesses in chemistry, fire and explosions. In fact, Weiner said, criminal investigators sat in on the civil trial. Chiaramonte was brought in last summer to clear up a backlog of cases and eventually brought the aggravated manslaughter and other criminal charges in the Paperstock case. The attorney for the Wisniewski estate, Steve Plofsky of Lehman & Duberman in New York, did not return calls for comment. Neither did Raymond Reddin of West Paterson, N.J., the attorney for Joseph Frank Damato, nor Joe Afflitto Sr. of Afflitto, Raimundi & Afflitto of Wayne, N.J., the lawyer for Joseph Phil Damato.

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