NSB and Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady win landmark wrongful death verdict for Native American man fatally shot by Parks Police
A jury on Wednesday awarded $150,000 in punitive damages to the family of a Ramapough Indian who was fatally shot by a state park ranger five years ago in Mahwah.
With a 7-0 vote, the panel found that former Park Police Officer Chad Walder’s actions were “malicious or wanton” when he drew his gun and shot Emil Mann on April 1, 2006, during a confrontation near Ringwood State Park over ATV riding near Stag Hill.
Lawyers for the Mann family said the finding was more significant than the size of the judgment.
“That is a finding that this family has been waiting for five years,” lawyer Nick Brustin said after the verdict.
Ilann Maazel, another lawyer for the family, said the jurors found that the killing was “completely and absolutely wrong and indefensible.”
“This is a very strong statement by the citizens of Bergen County,” Maazel said.
Mann’s two sons, Emil and Ronnie, and their mother, Charlene DeFreese, hugged each other after the verdict.
Walder and his lawyer, William Finizio, declined to comment.
Jurors had already awarded $2.1 million in compensatory damages to Mann’s family in a verdict Monday, ruling that Walder used unreasonable force.
According to testimony at trial, Walder and his two colleagues were on patrol in the woods that day while several tribal members had gathered for a cookout.
Tribal members and the three park rangers later got into an argument over ATV riding, which is illegal in state parks. The argument eventually became physical when one tribal member attacked one of the park rangers who were trying to arrest him.
Walder was rushing to the aid of that officer when he came face to face with Mann. He said that Mann came at him, yelling and cursing despite his instructions to stop.
Walder said he shot Mann twice after Mann began to scuffle with him and tried to grab his gun while other tribal members circled him and tried to ambush him.
Brustin, however, told jurors during the trial that Mann was unarmed and that Walder made up the story about the scuffle and the ambush to justify his shooting.
Walder was charged with reckless manslaughter and was acquitted after a criminal trial two years ago.
Dwayne Perry, chief of the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation, said in a statement that he was pleased with the verdict.
“This verdict is small consolation for a family which has suffered for so long, and for the people of the Ramapough Nation who have been damaged and besmirched as a people to justify a wanton killing of an innocent man,” Perry said in the statement, which was released by Lydia Cotz, an attorney for the tribe.
Mann’s family would be able to collect the compensatory damages from the state and its insurer under a law that allows the state to pay for damages incurred by negligent actions of a public employee.
Brustin said it was not clear whether Walder or the state would pay the punitive damages.
Jurors at one point sent a question to Judge Charles E. Powers, asking about the extent to which Walder would be personally responsible for punitive damages. The judge responded that the question was not relevant in determining whether punitive damages should be awarded.
Testimony at trial showed that Walder, 40, and his wife own two homes, two cars and a boat. Walder retired after the Mann shooting and received a full disability pension that will add up to $2.4 million over his lifetime.
Punitive damages are meant to penalize a person at fault and are often not covered by insurers. Public entities are not bound by law to pick up the tab for punitive awards against employees, unless they have agreed in writing to do so.
Such agreements are very rare, said Fort Lee lawyer Nancy Lucianna. She said she has handled more than 50 cases in the past 25 years involving allegations of excessive use of force by police.
“And I have not seen one case in which a public entity paid punitive damages,” she said.
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