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May 8, 2001, TUESDAY -Suit over Crash of County Jeep is Settled

As a jury was being selected in the case, Passaic County agreed Monday to pay $ 450,000 to four teenagers hurt when a county-owned Jeep flipped during a drunken joy ride.

Joseph Eckhoff, the driver during the July 23, 1995, crash, was serving probation at the time. But he had been given the vehicle by Edward Adamo, a county parks superintendent who was supposed to be monitoring Eckhoff's community-service work in the parks.

The day before the crash, Eckhoff and Adamo, the son of former Freeholder Michael Adamo, went on an unauthorized camping trip with the Jeep, and flipped it when they tried to run down a flock of geese. Adamo planned to report the damaged Jeep stolen, and told Eckhoff to dump it. Instead, Eckhoff was driving at an estimated 80 mph on Route 95 in Teaneck when the Jeep flipped, ejecting the passengers. Two girls suffered serious head injuries.

Both Adamo and Eckhoff pleaded guilty in criminal court to their roles in the incident, and are still serving their sentences. "This is a case where the county of Passaic let the fox guard the henhouse,"said Samuel Davis, an attorney for one of the passengers, who revealed the settlement Monday.

Had the civil case gone to trial in state Superior Court in Paterson, Davis and the other plaintiff attorneys were expected to showcase allegations of a web of political patronage that allowed the son of a prominent Republican to get promoted, despite a drug problem and a history of mishaps on the job.

Adamo's personnel file was"never reviewed in a meaningful way," before he was promoted to supervise probationers, said Davis. "If it had been reviewed, it would have revealed that he had on several occasions damaged county property, most memorably when he drove a 1 utility vehicle into a stream,"he said."They also would have seen he was quite blatantly a drug abuser, who had been sent home... on numerous occasions because he came into work high on drugs and alcohol."

County Counsel William Pascrell III declined to comment on the allegations of patronage, but said the decision to settle was best for taxpayers. "In weighing the risks.. . we believe the exposure was substantial, well over $ 2 million if liability was proved," said Pascrell."This was a very sympathetic case."

Davis client, Nicole Ott, will receive the bulk of the settlement $ 247,500. Ott, now 23 and living at home in Clifton, had metal plates inserted in her skull, and still suffers from headaches and short-term memory problems. She also broke her arm, suffered road burns from her chest to her knees, and lost not only her sense of smell, but the memory of what things smell like. "I am happy to go on with my life,"said Ott."I lost so many years, not being able to just live a normal life."

Another passenger, Nicole Matthews, 22, also of Clifton, continues to have headaches and mood swings, and lost the hearing in one ear. She will receive $ 135,000. Passengers Miguel De Jesus and Nelson Miranda, both of Paterson, will split $ 67,500. Miranda was spared serious injury, but De Jesus broke his collar bone and his jaw and has scarring on his back.

Adamo, a county employee for 20 years, spent 1 1/2 years in state prison after admitting he faked community-service records for several probationers, took unearned overtime, and received bribes. He agreed to pay $ 10,000 in restitution for the Jeep.

Adamo, 43, was released to his Paterson home in March for electronic bracelet monitoring. He is set for release on parole later this month.

Eckhoff, 25, was sentenced to three years of probation in July 1999 after pleading guilty to theft and assault. A Clifton man with a history of drug addiction and petty crime, he is serving a 364-day jail term after pleading guilty in December to a violation of probation, court officials said.

Davis said much of the damning information about the Parks Department came from a superintendent who has since retired, Owen Culligan, who supervised Adamo. "He looked through 1 Adamo's personnel file and said, 'Some of my complaints about him are here, but it looks like the file has been purged of a lot of complaints, " Davis said.

In depositions, Culligan said when Adamo was too intoxicated to work, his father picked him up. Davis also said the senior Adamo admitted his son had been hospitalized for drug use and depression. Neither Adamo nor his father could be reached for comment.

Davis also said that Culligan had further indicated that"it was more or less understood that you didn't make a big deal out of it,"when the junior Adamo got in trouble.

Pascrell declined to comment on specifics of those allegations, but noted that the events took place before the current Democratic majority controlled county government."The county counsel's office did the best it could under the circumstances. "Keeping in mind that none of us who are left having to deal with this case were around then ... there were many allegations thrown around and that weighed heavily on our final decision, too,"Pascrell said.

Davis said he agreed to a settlement despite the strength of his case because there were still serious risks. A jury might want to punish Eckhoff for the accident instead of the county, but collecting money from him would be more difficult, he noted.

Davis said a judge will determine later this month the amount of a judgment against Eckhoff, but they don't expect to collect much. Getting money from Adamo is also nearly impossible because he has filed for bankruptcy. "I think this just goes to show that when you have nepotism and patronage as the driving force in municipal government, not only is it wasteful to taxpayers, but it can be very destructive," Davis said.

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