Lawsuit asks: When is it bad to be a 'good Samaritan'?

Posted: February 10, 2011

Three strangers from South Jersey became good Samaritans for a few frantic minutes outside a Wawa last year when they helped a police officer subdue a man in the parking lot.

That man, Keith Briscoe, apparently had done nothing wrong, though, and died beneath a pile of civilians and police officers. Now, the Winslow Township officer who initiated the arrest is no longer on the force, and he, those "good Samaritans" and four current officers are defendants in a $25 million civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Briscoe's family.

"They were culpable in causing someone's death," said Stanley King, the attorney representing Briscoe's family.

One of those men, Daniel Damato, of Maple Shade, said last week that he vividly remembers the morning of May 3 and knows exactly why he helped Winslow Township police Officer Sean Richards.

"He dropped his handcuffs and I thought the guy might have tried to grab his gun," Damato said.

A manager at the Wawa and a Camden County man who intervened could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The suit also names four other police officers who arrived on the scene to help subdue Briscoe.

Briscoe, who was schizophrenic and who lived at home, was standing outside the Wawa smoking a cigarette and drinking a soda he'd bought in the store. Briscoe, 36, visited the store every morning before going to Steininger Behavior Care Services down the street. Wawa had a no-loitering policy.

When Richards arrived to buy hot chocolate, he told Briscoe he was loitering and panhandling, and asked him to leave. Briscoe didn't, though, and a struggle ensued when Richards tried to arrest him. When Damato, another customer and the manager intervened, King said, Briscoe had already been maced several times and was having trouble breathing.

"All of these people who came to his aid had it wrong," King said. "It cost this man his life. I feel bad for the pedestrians as well, because it's a delicate situation, but it is what it is."

King said that the lawsuit wasn't meant to have a "chilling effect" on good Samaritans, but other attorneys think that that's exactly what could happen.

Michael Ferrara, an attorney from Cherry Hill, said that "good Samaritan" statutes in New Jersey protect medical personnel who help at an accident scene, but not the public. "It's a fascinating topic," he said. "I could see it going to the Supreme Court."

Ferrara said he doubts that a jury, when trying to determine who was responsible for Briscoe's death, would place more blame on the civilians than on the former cop.

Richards pleaded guilty to simple assault in October and is no longer a cop.

In a case in Baltimore in 2004, four public-works employees were charged with failure to assist a cop struggling with a drug suspect. Those men sued the city and won. Their attorney, Jeffrey Silver, said that they could have risked being shot themselves if they'd gotten involved.

"How would anyone know who the bad guy was?" he asked.

Tim Quinlan, an attorney who represented Richards, said that his client had not asked the civilians to intervene.

"They saw a cop struggling and they jumped into action," he said. "Now you're going to have cops getting killed because people are afraid to get involved."

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