A Middlesex County jury on Aug. 2 awarded $3.5 million in Leighton v. Flack, a suit lodged over injuries sustained when the plaintiff’s car was struck from behind by a commercial vehicle.

Plaintiff Michael Leighton, of Keasbey, now 59, was injured on April 21, 2014, as he was stopped at a light on Princeton Avenue in Lawrenceville, said Leighton’s attorney, Kelly Castor.

Leighton’s car was struck from behind by a vehicle owned by Scott Testing Inc. of Hamilton and driven by an employee, Steven Flack, said Castor, of the law office of Katherine Houghton in Paramus.

Leighton sustained herniation and disc bulges at the cervical level and two lumbar herniations, which were treated with chiropractic treatment and pain injections, Castor said. The suit claimed Leighton experiences daily pain, and cannot walk long distances, work around the house or engage in other activities, Castor said. His doctors said that without further treatment, including epidural injections or discectomy procedures, the discs would not heal properly, Castor said.

Defendant, Castor said, argued that Leighton’s neck and back injuries were unrelated to the accident and claimed preexisting spinal degeneration. A lumbar MRI 20 years earlier had shown a disc bulge and degeneration, and he admitted having previous low back pain in 2012, she said.

Superior Court Judge Gary Wolinetz presided over the trial. New Jersey Manufacturers Insurance Co., the carrier for Scott Testing, retained Thomas Mulcahy of Purcell, Mulcahy & Flanagan in Bedminster. He did not return a call about the case.

— Michael Booth

$800K For Death in Police Custody

Estate of Norman v. Haddon Township: A federal judge in Camden approved an $800,000 settlement and an enhanced fee application July 23 in a suit over a man’s death in police custody.

According to a court decision and the plaintiffs’ counsel, the suit stems from the Sept. 29, 2012, death of Sherron Norman, 37, after police were called to a fast food restaurant in Haddon Township for the report of a man exhibiting bizarre behavior. Norman, who had a history of drug abuse, was reported to be in a “zombie-like” state, combative, shouting and hitting the counter and cash register.

Police from Haddon Township and four other municipalities arrived at the scene and placed Norman under arrest. The suit claimed the officers choked Norman and struck him on the head numerous times. A Haddon Township officer handcuffed him behind his back, dragged him to a police car, and placed him face-down across the back seat, with his knees bent, leaving him unattended, according to the suit. When an officer checked on him about five minutes later, Norman was unresponsive, and he later was declared dead at a local hospital.

Norman’s estate filed suit in September 2017 against Haddon Township, police chief Mark Cavallo, and four Haddon Township police officers: William Benham, Joseph Sullivan, Scott Dempsey and Charles Blanchard. He also sued Camden, Collingswood, Oaklyn and Woodlynne and various police chiefs and officers from those municipalities, but they were dismissed from the case in 2017, along with Haddon Township officers Dempsey and Blanchard.

The suit claimed Norman died of positional asphyxia and cardiac arrest, while the defendants contended that the cause of death was cocaine intoxication. The state medical examiner, after performing an autopsy, concluded that the death was an accident and the cause of death was “toxic effect of cocaine.” A plaintiff’s expert, who also performed an autopsy, concluded that the cause of death was “asphyxia and cardiopulmonary arrest during restraint for bizarre behavior,” and declared the death to be a homicide, according to court papers.

The parties reached the $800,000 settlement in June, as the case was about to go to trial.

Norman is survived by a minor child. Therefore, the default contingency fee under Rule 1:21-7 is set at 25 percent, but the lawyers for Norman’s estate, Stanley King and Sharon King of King & King in Woodbury, petitioned for an enhanced fee of 33 1/3 percent of the settlement, and the petition was granted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider. Schneider granted the petition, saying that the plaintiff lawyers “work in a small firm” and noted that “the substantial resources counsel invested in terms of time and money likely foreclosed them from accepting more lucrative engagements.” The fee award amounts to $298,655, which is one-third of the settlement proceeds minus $48,020 in expenses, according to the court.

Francis Donnelly of Mayfield, Turner, O’Mara & Donnelly in Cherry Hill, who represented Haddon Township and its chief and officers, didn’t respond to a call about the case.

— Charles Toutant

$2.18M Verdict in Camden UM Case

Mercado v. Liberty Mutual: A Camden County jury on June 28 awarded $2.18 million to a motorist who claimed he sustained permanent injuries in an auto accident, though the award is capped at $15,625.

According to the plaintiff’s counsel, on May 9, 2015, plaintiff Jose Mercado, 50, a court clerk, was driving on Third Street in Camden. As he entered the intersection with Chestnut Street, another car, approaching from the opposite direction, tried to make a left turn onto Chestnut Street. The car broadsided Mercado’s sedan on the driver’s side. Mercado claimed permanent neck, shoulder and back injuries. Mercado sued the driver, Walika Robertson, alleging she was negligent. Robertson was uninsured, so Mercado sued his own insurer, Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., seeking to recover on his $25,000 uninsured-motorist policy.

Mercado came under the care of an orthopedic surgeon, who diagnosed a tear of the supraspinatus tendon of the right, dominant shoulder. Also diagnosed were bulges at C6-7, and L3-4 and L4-5, and herniations at C3-4, C4-5 and C5-6, and bilateral cervical and lumbar radiculitis. Mercado treated with a percutaneous electrical stimulation. An epidural injection of a steroid-based painkiller was recommended but Mercado declined.

At the time of the accident, Mercado lived with a relative and therefore was entitled to coverage under the relative’s $15,000 insurance policy. In order to determine each party’s pro-rata percentage of the $25,000 Liberty Mutual policy, Mercado and his relative’s policies were combined, which totaled $40,000. Liberty Mutual would then be responsible for 62.5 percent of the $25,000 policy, or $15,625, and the insurer of Mercado’s relative was responsible for 37.5 percent, or $9,375. The relative’s insurer paid the $9,375, prior to trial. Liberty Mutual stipulated to negligence, and the case was tried on the issues of causation and damages.

At a three-day trial before Camden County Superior Court Judge Donald J. Stein, Mercado’s orthopedic surgeon causally related his injuries to the accident, and opined that he had suffered permanent injuries to his neck, right shoulder and low back. As Mercado ages, the physician stated, his rotator cuff will likely worsen, necessitating surgery. Mercado testified that his injuries forced him to give up his active lifestyle. He sought damages for past and future pain and suffering. The defense questioned Mercado’s injuries. Liberty Mutual’s expert testified that, at most, he only suffered a strain and sprain to his cervical and lumbar spine, and that his lumbar and shoulder injuries were preexisting. The expert concluded that Mercado did not suffer any permanent injuries. The six-member jury unanimously determined that Mercado’s injuries were caused by the accident and were permanent within the meaning of the verbal tort threshold. Mercado was determined to receive damages of $2,175,000. The award was molded to $15,625, or 62.5 percent of the $25,000 policy, plus pre-judgment interest.

Mercado was represented by Lisa R. Bowles-Marone of Taylor, Taylor & Leonetti. Liberty Mutual was represented by Brad Hoffman of Styliades & Jackson. Robertson was not represented.

*Editor’s note: This report is based on information that was provided by plaintiff’s counsel. Liberty Mutual Insurance’s counsel did not respond to the reporter’s phone calls, and Robertson was not asked to contribute.

— From VerdictSearch reports