The jury of 10 men and women reached their decision after nearly six hours of deliberation.
The verdict closes a difficult chapter in recent Secaucus history that had shined an unflattering light on the town's popular volunteer fire department.
Former Secaucus residents Peter DeVries and his romantic partner Timothy Carter lived on Schopmann Drive next to the North End Fire House for several years. They say they were the victims of three years of harassment at the hands of some volunteer firefighters assigned to the North End unit.
They filed a civil suit saying that the alleged harassment culminated in a large-scale attack on the morning of April 25, 2004 when a few apparently drunk, rowdy firefighters took offense when the couple asked them to quiet down.
Carter and DeVries claimed that in retaliation, the firefighters allegedly began yelling anti-gay epithets, threw items onto their property, and threatened to kill them.
Following these events, the Secaucus Police Department, the Hudson County Prosecutors Office, and the State Attorney General all investigated the incident. The state investigation superceded the one by the local police. So far, none of the investigations has resulted in arrests or criminal charges.
The couple, who have since moved out of Secaucus, filed suit and endured a trial that lasted five and a half weeks.
In reaching its verdict against the town, the jury concluded that Secaucus is responsible for the actions of the volunteer firefighters who perpetuated the attack, and that town officials were indifferent to the alleged harassment the men experienced before and after the April 25 incident.
State law violated
Specifically, the jury found that the town violated the plaintiffs' rights under New Jersey's Law Against Discrimination, the state constitution, and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.
"The jury found on all legal theories. So, of course we're thrilled with the verdict," said lead plaintiff attorney Neil Mullin last week. "Our hope is that this verdict will signal to the Town of Secaucus the need to make some major changes. The mayor, the town attorney, and administrator failed to take any significant action to protect these men when their lives were in danger."
"Also, after the event, [one of the firefighters involved] was promoted to be a department head in the Department of Public Works," Mullin added. "Another [volunteer firefighter] was elected Battalion Chief of the fire department. These promotions had to be approved by the mayor and the Town Council. So, far from punishing these people, the town rewarded them."
The plaintiffs will split the judgment.
The jury awarded Peter DeVries $1 million for emotional distress and pain and suffering, and an additional $446,000 for loss of income. His partner, Timothy Carter, will receive $1.4 million for emotional distress and pain and suffering.
In addition, the town is on the hook for the couple's legal fees and costs, which their attorney said are in excess of $2 million.
During the trial before Hudson County Superior Court, the jury heard from more than a dozen witnesses, including Mayor Dennis Elwell; former Town Administrator Anthony Iacono; Town Attorney Frank Leanza; and three volunteer firefighters - Charles Snyder Sr., Charles Snyder Jr., and Charles Mutschler - who were accused in police reports and court papers as being the alleged ringleaders of the April 25 incident.
Carter and DeVries also testified at the trial, as did some of their former neighbors who overheard the 2004 attack and called 911.
"I'm sorry. I can't comment," was the only statement from defense attorney Daniel Bevere, who represented the town in the case.
Bevere said he also could not comment on whether he and co-counsel David Paris planned to appeal the verdict.
However, appeals are common in such cases, and several observers noted that the town will likely file an appeal. According to one person with knowledge of the case, the defense attorneys believe there are grounds for an appeal.
"Our attorneys have advised us not to comment until they've had a chance to review the case to determine whether or not they will appeal," Mayor Elwell said on Wednesday afternoon.
Iacono, the former town administrator who left Secaucus to become town administrator for Paramus, was willing to comment.
"I give the two gentlemen and their attorneys credit for how they presented their case," Iacono said the morning after the verdict. "[But] I've maintained all along that the town of Secaucus did absolutely nothing wrong. From the town's perspective, we cooperated 110 percent with the investigation. It's just a shame that the town will now be held accountable for the actions of a few individuals. If there are individuals out there who did this, they should be the ones to pay."