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Norman v. Haddon Township

United States District Court, D. New Jersey, Camden Vicinage

July 23, 2018

JUANITA NORMAN, Administratrix ad Prosequendum of the ESTATE OF SHERRON J. NORMAN, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
HADDON TOWNSHIP, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOEL SCHNEIDER UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on plaintiff's “Motion for Approval and Distribution of Settlement and for Reasonable Counsel Fees.” [Doc. No. 131]. There is no opposition to the motion. An in-person hearing and oral argument was held on July 16, 2018. For the reasons to be discussed, plaintiff's motion is GRANTED and DENIED in part without prejudice.[1] The Court approves as fair and reasonable the parties' $800, 000 settlement. The Court also approves plaintiff's counsel's application for an enhanced contingency fee of 33 1/3% ($250, 634.85) and reimbursement of costs ($48, 020.25).

         Background

         This case arises from the tragic death of Sherron J. Norman (“Norman”) who was unfortunately a drug addict most of his adult life. As confirmed in video evidence, on September 29, 2012, Norman was behaving bizarrely-shouting, hitting the counter and cash register, and ultimately pulling down his pants, at a Crown Fried Chicken fast food restaurant on Mt. Ephraim Avenue in Haddon Township, New Jersey. After 911 was called, various patrol officers and EMS personnel arrived at the scene. Haddon Township's officers were first to arrive. Although denied by defendants, plaintiff contends the police officers struck Norman numerous times. Norman was then placed in the back of a patrol car, lying face down and left unattended. When an officer and EMT checked on Norman he was unresponsive. Norman was later pronounced dead at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital. Defendants contend that at all relevant times Norman was in a “zombie like” state and combative. Defendants contend they were bitten by Norman, he was out of control and he acted violently. Plaintiff contends Norman died from positional asphyxia and cardiopulmonary arrest during restraint for bizarre behavior. Relying upon the autopsy report of the Gloucester County Medical Examiner and the opinion of a separate forensic pathologist, defendants contend the cause of death was cocaine intoxication.

         On March 13, 2013, Juanita Norman (“Juanita”), Norman's sister, was granted Administration Ad Prosequendum by the Surrogate's Office in Camden County. Juanita filed her sixteen-count complaint on September 28, 2014 against 21 defendants. These defendants included five municipalities, their police chiefs and their respective officers who responded to the scene. To put it mildly, the litigation was vigorously contested. After defendants' motions for summary judgment were decided on June 29, 2017 [Doc. Nos. 97, 98], only the Haddon Township defendants remained in the case. The case settled in April 2018 for $800, 000 on the eve of jury selection. At all relevant times the husband and wife civil rights duo of Sharon and Stanley King, King and King, LLC, represented Norman.

         Norman was not married when he died. He had at least one child, O.L., who lives with her court-appointed guardian. Norman may also have another minor child, K.J., who lives with his grandparents.

         In order to confirm the beneficiaries of Norman's Estate a separate action was recently filed in the Chancery Division -Probate Part, Camden County Superior Court. The action seeks to confirm that O.L., and possibly K.J., is a beneficiary of the Estate. The action also seeks to expand Juanita's role to that of Administratrix of the Estate of Norman so that she will be permitted to distribute the funds of the Estate pursuant to the Chancery Division's Order. Separate counsel was hired to handle the Estate issues and he appeared at the July 16, 2018 hearing. According to counsel, the Chancery Division will not only decide the beneficiaries of the Estate, but also how the net settlement funds will be paid and distributed after the payment of plaintiff's attorney's fees and costs.[2]

         Counsel's motion seeks approval for a 33 1/3% contingency fee and reimbursement of out-of-pocket expenses of $48, 020.25. The proposed attorney's fee represents 1/3 of plaintiff's net recovery rather than 25% as is normally the case where the beneficiary of a settlement is a minor.

         Discussion

         Given the action filed in state court and the fact that an experienced probate Judge will decide who the beneficiaries of Norman's Estate are and how the net settlement funds will be paid and distributed, there are only two issues this Court has to decide. One, whether the proposed $800, 000 settlement should be approved as fair and reasonable. Two, whether plaintiff's counsel is entitled to an enhanced contingent fee of 33 1/3% rather than 25%, and whether reimbursement of counsel's costs in the amount of $48, 020.25 should be approved.

         1. Settlement Approval

         The Court has no hesitation approving the settlement of the case for the total sum of $800, 000. The Court is intimately familiar with the case having managed the proceedings since the Fed.R.Civ.P. 16 Scheduling Conference was held on January 7, 2015. Throughout the history of the case the Court has held numerous conferences and hearings and is familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the parties' litigation positions.

         Given the liability issues in dispute, and the real possibility of a defense jury verdict, the Court finds $800, 000 is a fair, reasonable and appropriate settlement. While Norman's death was tragic, the facts of life are that the decedent was not a particularly sympathetic plaintiff. After all, on the evening of his death the police were confronted with an undressed drug induced individual who was behaving bizarrely. Further, defendants presented formidable experts who opined that defendants were not to blame for Norman's death. In addition, Norman did not make an economic loss claim and the extent of his pain and suffering damages was subject to dispute. In addition, the Court is convinced defendants were not going to pay any more money to settle if plaintiff did not accept their last $800, 000 offer. Under all these circumstances, the $800, 000 settlement is eminently fair and reasonable.

         2. Attorney's Fees and Costs

         Since the beneficiary of the decedent's estate is a minor, plaintiff's contingency fee is limited by N.J.R. 1:21-7(c)(6). This Rule limits a contingency fee to 25% where the amount recovered is for the benefit of a minor.[3] Plaintiff's ...


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