CRANFORD, NJ — The township will pay $300,000 to a couple who became sick from leaking underground tanks owned by a dry cleaning business, as as part of a proposed settlement agreement.
Municipal attorney Ryan Cooper made the announcement at the Nov. 27 Township Committee meeting.
Edna and Edan Ben Elazar, who owned an electronics repair shop on North Avenue adjacent to the cleaners, claimed long-term respiratory illnesses including asthma, bronchitis and a chronic blood disorder that they blamed on underground fuel and chemical tanks belonging to the owners of Macrietta Cleaners, previously known as Swan Custom Cleaners.
Court papers show the Ben Elazars noticed odors coming from the cleaners shortly after opening their business in 1988. In 1998, the underground tanks were removed but it wasn’t until 2012 that the Ben Elazars linked the odors to their health issues. Cooper said that’s when the couple filed suit against the township and the owners of Macrietta Cleaners.
The township was potentially liable for damages because the tanks were partially located on municipal property, the state Supreme Court ruled. The initial suit against the township, Macrietta Cleaners and Swan Custom Cleaners was dismissed because of the statute of limitations. The state Supreme Court, however, reversed that decision and reinstated the Ben Elazar’s personal injury claim last year.
A video of last week’s Township Committee meeting showed that Cooper said the settlement in principal will be on the committee’s agenda for approval at the Dec. 18 meeting. He said the $300,000 “has been appropriated from the township’s operating budget.”
“The case was settled as a compromise and as a business and legal decision of the township’s anticipated legal costs and potential legal exposure,” Cooper said. “The settlement does not acknowledge liability. In fact, it’s fundamental. Almost no settlement ever does admit liability. In fact, the township vehemently disputes it had any liability to the plaintiffs in this case and was more than prepared to go to trial on that. However, trials are outrageously expensive and there are always risks that come with that.”
Stuart Lieberman, the attorney for the Ben Elazars, did not return a phone message seeking comment.
Cooper said that, since 2015, insurance has been paying 70 percent of the township’s legal fees in the matter, and that the township has a judgment against Macrietta “for all our legal costs.”
“We are going to be applying to the court in the very near future now that it appears we’re going to be reaching a settlement for judgment to indemnify, that is, reimburse the township for the full amount of the settlement,” Cooper said. “So, I anticipate by the end of this year, or certainly at the end of January, to have judgments in hand that entitle the township to recoup 100 percent of its expenses in the course of this litigation from other parties.”
The Township Committee’s transparency in handling the matter was called into question at the meeting by resident Jim Carvalho. He said it was not until a resolution passed at the June 12 committee meeting appropriating $125,000 for “expenses associated” with the lawsuit that the words “Swan Cleaners” had appeared on an agenda.
“I think it would have been more forthcoming to the public if the words ‘Swan Cleaners’ and/or ‘township of Cranford’ was included in all those agenda items that are listed,” Carvalho said. “Someone would have to do their own research to find out exactly what that case entails and that it indeed did have something to do with Swan Cleaners. Macrietta took over for Swan, but the township of Cranford was never named in any of those agenda items.”
Cooper said that since the lawsuit was filed in 2012, it would not have appeared as an agenda item. The committee would get an update on the lawsuit during the attorney’s report. He said “Swan Cleaners” or “Macrietta Cleaners” have appeared on the agenda earlier this year.
Cooper also said that talks about the lawsuit were “held in closed or executive session and that’s because they entail legal advice, which is privileged and confidential and strictly between the attorneys and the Township Committee and would be quite worthless to the taxpayers if it was publicly divulged to anybody who was interested. That is why those minutes are confidential.”
Carvalho also asked the committee if it had played a role in a “press blackout” among the four media outlets, including LocalSource, the township uses to advertise public meetings.
“Can you assure the taxpayers that no one associated with the township of Cranford, the government, elected officials, appointed officials, employees, contractors, attorneys or anyone else affiliated has either implicitly or explicitly asked anybody from those publications to not publish information (on the lawsuit)?” Carvalho said.
“There are absolutely, positively none that I am aware of,” Mayor Tom Hannen responded.