Police brutality civil case settled out of court for $725,000

Posted June 27, 2011, at 2:44 p.m.
Last modified June 27, 2011, at 6:21 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Minutes before an alleged police brutality civil case out of Hancock County was set to begin in federal court, the parties involved settled the case for $725,000.

The money is being paid by the county’s insurer to Deer Isle resident Ronald Eaton, who had filed the civil lawsuit against several county and Ellsworth city officials after his arrest in Ellsworth in November 2006. Hanover Insurance Company, which insures the homes of two people not employed by the county who also were sued by Eaton, will help pay the settlement, according to Eaton’s attorneys.

Eaton argued that police had no reason to arrest him when an off-duty sheriff’s deputy accosted him and broke his right shoulder in the parking lot of China Hill restaurant on Nov. 5, 2006. Eaton also accused several corrections officers of violating his rights when he subsequently was taken to Hancock County Jail.

A jury of five women and three men had been picked Monday in U.S. District Court in Bangor and testimony was about to begin when attorneys for Eaton and the county reached a settlement around 11:30 a.m.

Jason Lepper, the former sheriff’s deputy who with his father and brother-in-law confronted Eaton at the Ellsworth restaurant, declined to comment after the settlement was reached and the jury was dismissed.

Eaton also declined to comment.

Peter Marchesi, who represented Lepper and three Hancock County corrections officers in the case, declined to comment about the settlement between Eaton and the insurance companies. Portland attorney John Topchik, who represented Lepper’s father in the case, declined to comment on any aspect of the case.

Marchesi said he and his clients had been eager for the trial to begin.

“Both my clients and I are very disappointed that we didn’t get the chance to present our case to the jury,” Marchesi said.

Laurence Willey, Eaton’s trial attorney, said Lepper had been eating at the restaurant with his family when Eaton became irate that his girlfriend had left him there. Willey said Lepper followed Eaton into the parking lot and confronted him after becoming aggravated by Eaton’s demeanor. Willey said others at the restaurant were not troubled by Eaton’s behavior, however, and some thought Eaton was being mugged when they witnessed the altercation between Eaton and the off-duty deputy.

“This whole thing should never have happened,” Willey said. “When off-duty, [a police officer] should never jump in unless it’s a matter of life and death.”

Dale Thistle, Eaton’s co-counsel in the case, said Monday that his client was relieved the matter had been resolved.

“We just think it escalated way out of control,” Thistle said.

In his lawsuit, Eaton originally named several county and Ellsworth agencies and officials including Sheriff William Clark, Jail Administrator Carl Dannenburg and Ellsworth Police Chief John DeLeo. Judge John Woodcock, the trial judge for Eaton’s federal civil case, later dismissed most of them as defendants in the case.

Besides Lepper, his father, James Lepper, and his brother-in-law Joshua Stevens were kept as defendants in Eaton’s civil lawsuit, however. They allegedly assisted Lepper in subduing Eaton in the restaurant parking lot, according to Eaton’s complaint.  

Also kept as defendants were Joshua Gunn, Ryan Haines and Jack Weaver, all corrections officers at Hancock County Jail. Eaton claimed that, after he was arrested, the corrections officers violated his rights by assaulting him while falsely imprisoning him at the jail.

According to court documents, on Nov. 5, 2006 Eaton had consumed part of a large alcoholic drink called a “volcano bowl” at China Hill when he and his girlfriend began arguing and using profane language. She left the table, claiming she was going to the bathroom, but instead she called a cab and left without Eaton’s knowledge.

Eaton became concerned about her disappearance and began searching the restaurant for her, calling out her name and asking other patrons if they had seen her, the documents indicate. Eaton, carrying a bag of food in each hand, walked out to the parking lot. Lepper, his father and brother-in-law followed Eaton, fearing he was intoxicated and might try to drive away.

Eaton did not recognize Lepper as a police officer and, not knowing why he was being followed, tried to re-enter the restaurant through a side door. Lepper then confronted Eaton, forcing him to the ground and breaking his shoulder when he wrenched Eaton’s arm behind his back, according to Eaton’s attorneys.

Eaton was arrested and taken to Hancock County Jail, where despite being in “excruciating pain” and requesting medical attention multiple times, he was “maced and beaten by jail staff several times during the course of the night,” according to Eaton’s complaint. He bailed himself out at 4 a.m. the next morning and was driven directly to the hospital by his brother.

As a result of the Nov. 5 2006 incident, Eaton went to trial in September 2007 on criminal charges of disorderly conduct and criminal threatening. According to Willey, Justice William Broderick acquitted Eaton in the middle of the criminal trial in Hancock County Superior Court after the state had rested its case but before the defense started calling witnesses.

Willey said the defendants’ attorneys in the civil case had tried to bar facts about Eaton’s criminal acquittal from testimony in the federal civil trial but that Woodcock had determined such testimony would be permitted.

“We thought that was very significant,” Willey said.

Eaton had been a fisherman but was working as a plumber’s assistant at the time his shoulder was broken, Willey said.

“Ronald Eaton has had to undergo multiple surgeries as a result of these injuries and still does not have reasonable use of his arm,” Eaton’s civil complaint indicates.

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