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Gammage family settles civil rights lawsuit

Most of $1.5 million for motorist's death to come from insurer

Wednesday, June 10, 1998

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The parents of Jonny E. Gammage have accepted $1.5 million to settle a civil rights suit against the police officers involved in the traffic stop that led to their son's death and the municipalities that employed them.

Michael Lewis, a Florida lawyer who represents the Gammages, confirmed yesterday that his clients had accepted the agreement.

"They are pleased with the settlement, as much as anyone could be pleased under the circumstances.

"They can't get their son back, and that would be the only thing that could really make them whole," Lewis said.

Narves and Jonny Gammage Sr. of Syracuse, N.Y., filed suit 2 1/2 years ago to recover compensatory and punitive damages for the death of their 31-year-old son, a businessman and cousin of former Steelers defensive end Ray Seals.

The couple could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Gammage, who was black, died Oct. 12, 1995, after struggling with five white police officers during a traffic stop on Route 51 in Overbrook.

The federal court lawsuit had named as defendants the five police officers who struggled with Gammage, the municipalities of Brentwood, Whitehall and Baldwin Borough that employed them, their police chiefs and mayors, and the Brentwood Emergency Medical Services Inc., which transported Gammage to Mercy Hospital, where he died.

The suit alleged that the police violated Jonny Gammage's federal civil rights and state laws regarding wrongful death. The suit was separate from criminal charges filed against three of the officers involved.

His death was attributed to positional asphyxia, caused when the officers pinned him to the ground.

In the agreement with the Gammages, Scottsdale Insurance Co. of Scottsdale, Ariz., which carried coverage on the three boroughs -- Brentwood, Baldwin and Whitehall -- will pay most of the settlement.

Lewis did not know how the liability was divided among the three communities.

"It was just a question of semantics in terms of who was participating in making the total payment," Lewis said.

An insurance policy for Brentwood Emergency Medical Services Inc., which came from a different insurance carrier, also will help pay for the settlement, Lewis said.

In return, the Gammages have agreed to release all claims against all of the defendants in their lawsuit.

The money will change hands "probably within the next few days," Lewis said.

The Gammages, Lewis said, "are people who have tremendous faith. I think that's what really has sustained them over the past few months. They have really been through a lot."

Litigants in the case had discussed settlement for the past few months, Lewis said.

Brentwood's borough council approved the settlement Monday night during a closed session.

"I'm just glad the civil part is out of the way," said Brentwood Police Chief George Swinney, adding that representatives of Brentwood, Baldwin and Whitehall all met in their own communities Monday to discuss the agreement.

Ron Arnoni, mayor of Brentwood, could not be reached for comment.

Allegheny County Commissioner Bob Cranmer, who lives in Brentwood and was a councilman there, said yesterday that the case was "sad and unfortunate."

"It never should have happened," he said.

"It's unfortunate for the municipalities having to pay this amount of money. But most of all, it's unfortunate for the family," Cranmer said.

The settlement closes one chapter in the Gammage case, but another remains open.

Three of the five officers involved in the stop were charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Two trials for Baldwin Borough Patrolman Michael G. Albert and retired Brentwood Lt. Milton E. Mulholland ended in mistrials. The two are awaiting a ruling on whether they should be retried.

Brentwood police Sgt. John Vojtas, who was tried alone in 1996, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.

Whitehall Sgt. Keith B. Henderson and patrolman Shawn Patterson were not charged criminally.

Pat Thomassey, who represents Mulholland, said he would not allow his client to sign any agreement with the Gammages because he "didn't do anything wrong."

Thomas Ceraso, one of Albert's attorneys, echoed Thomassey's comment.

"I have advised my client not to sign it. I don't think there's any liability, civil or criminal, on his part," Ceraso said.

But the officers' refusal to sign, Ceraso added, will not stop the money from changing hands.

"I don't think our consent is necessary to settling the case," Ceraso said. "We had no input into it at all. It's a decision made by the carriers representing the municipalities.

"They're looking at it from the standpoint of what's it costing us to defend this thing and what will it cost us to get it off the table," Ceraso added.

Scott Dunlop, another of Albert's attorneys, said the costs associated with defending the civil case had been "astronomical."

Settlement of the Gammages' suit represents the second time this year that Brentwood has paid to settle a lawsuit related to the Gammage case.

In April, the borough agreed to pay $200,000 to former Brentwood police Chief Wayne Babish and another $20,000 to his attorney.

Babish sued the borough in 1996 after Brentwood fired him in January of that year.

Babish said his firing was related to the Gammage case, and that Brentwood officials violated his civil rights, denied him due process and defamed him.

Staff writer Jan Ackerman contributed to this report.

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