Drunken driver to pay officer’s family $10.1M
An Ocean County jury has rendered a $10.1 million verdict against a drunken driver who killed Ocean Gate Police Officer Jason Marles in a fiery crash on Thanksgiving Day 2010.
The jury on Friday held Erick P. Uzcategui, 36, of Manchester solely responsible for the death of Marles, 32, of Point Pleasant Beach, a nine-year veteran of the Ocean Gate police force. It awarded the $10.1 million to Marles’ estate, according to Scott Kenneally and William V. Kelly, attorneys for the estate.
The money will be held in trust for Marles’ two children, who were ages 4 and 5 when their father was killed, Kelly said. The children are now 9 and 11.
The jury found no responsibility on behalf of Bamboo Bar, a Seaside Heights tavern also named in the civil suit filed on behalf of the Marles estate by Kenneally and Kelly of the Toms River law firm Starkey, Kelly, Kenneally, Cunningham and Turnbach.
At the civil trial, Kelly and Kenneally failed to convince the jury that Uzcategui was served alcohol at Bamboo while already visibly intoxicated before he got into the crash that killed Marles.
The verdict was announced Friday after an eight-day trial before Superior Court Judge Arnold B. Goldman.
Erick P. Uzcategui, seen at his 2014 sentencing for the vehicular homicide of Ocean Gate police officer Jason Marles.
“We are gratified that the jury recognized the devastating loss suffered by the Marles family, although, unfortunately, nothing can bring Jason back,” said Kelly.
“We hope that the trial can bring some closure to the family and serve as a testament to the tremendous impact that Jason had during his life on everyone who met him,” Kenneally said.
Uzcategui was driving a loaner vehicle owned by Hunterdon BMW when the crash occurred, according to Kenneally. The dealership had a substantial insurance policy on it, Kenneally said.
Uzcategui was tried in 2014 and convicted of vehicular homicide in the death of Marles. He is serving an eight-year prison term in Southern State Correctional Facility in Delmont, Cumberland County.
At the 2014 criminal trial before Superior Court Judge James M. Blaney, Assistant Ocean County Prosecutor Patrick Sheehan produced evidence that Uzcategui was impaired by alcohol and cocaine when he crashed his BMW sport-utility vehicle into Marles’ off-duty Jeep Grand Cherokee in the northbound lanes of the Garden State Parkway in Toms River on Nov. 25, 2010. The impact sent the officer’s vehicle spinning and crashing into a guardrail before it overturned and burst into flames.
Marles, who was on his way home from an overtime shift looking for drunken drivers, immediately perished in the accident, which occurred at 3:22 a.m. at mile marker 83.3 on the Parkway. Kenneally and Kelly said he suffered massive head and chest injuries.
Uzcategui told authorities after the crash that he had consumed four or five drinks and some cocaine beforehand. His blood-alcohol level was 0.155, or almost double the legal limit for driving of 0.08, almost two hours after the crash, according to Kenneally. At Uzcategui’s criminal trial, an expert for the state testified his blood-alcohol level would have been about 0.185 at the time of the accident.
Marles’ mother, Patricia Engrassia, and stepfather, Joseph Engrassia, a Seaside Heights detective, were among a number of witnesses who testified at the civil trial about Marles’ life and the devastation caused by his death, according to Kenneally and Kelly.
“They really want to express their gratitude to the jury,” Kenneally said on behalf of the Engrassias. “The verdict impacted them greatly.”
The jury awarded $5,082,275 for Marles’ pain and suffering and $5 million for economic damages to his estate, they said.