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Shenandoah wrongful death claim set for federal trial in August

A U.S. District Court judge in Harrisburg has ruled that a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the survivors of a man who died in police custody in 2004 may go to trial. The case stems from an incident that took place right next door to Lehigh Valley in Shenandoah County. The wrongful death claim, filed by the victim's parents, alleges that police killed the victim and then staged the death to make it look like a suicide.

The parents filed the lawsuit in 2006 against the Borough of Shenandoah, its former police chief and captain. The defendants had moved for summary judgment, though the judge's ruling now means the case will proceed to trial in August.

The court's decision dismissed some aspects of the wrongful death claim, but also held that factual issues remained that required a jury to decide. While the county coroner found the man's death to be a suicide, the mother of the victim's child has sworn the police captain admitted to her that he and the chief killed the victim. The lawsuit asserts that, after being beaten to death, the man's body was hung in a cell to make it appear to be a suicide. Though the judge ruled it was clear the victim was drunk and disorderly, he also found that the remaining factual issues surrounding the death must be heard by the court on a summary judgment motion in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs. As a result of the ruling, the plaintiffs will now have their day in court to attempt to prove their case.

The law in Lehigh Valley and throughout Pennsylvania defines a wrongful death as a fatality caused by the negligent or intentional acts of another. While the upcoming trial will address the issues raised by the lawsuit, the court's determination that there are sufficient factual issues for a jury to hear means the plaintiffs have passed an important stage in the ongoing litigation. The plaintiffs have waited over seven years for justice and will now have the opportunity to prove the allegations they have presented.

Source:, "Judge allows federal wrongful death lawsuit against Shenandoah, police," Peter E. Bortner, Feb. 17, 2012

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