Jury Awards $500,000 Judgment Against Philabundance

Former employee says he was wrongfully jailed for stealing from the agency.

 

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Philabundance has been ordered to pay $500,000 to a former employee who says he was maliciously prosecuted by the non-profit hunger agency.

A Philadelphia jury ordered the award last week after hearing testimony in the case of Manuel Burgos, a former truck driver for Philabundance, who in 2010 was accused of stealing gasoline that had been donated by Sunoco to the agency. Criminal charges were brought against Burgos, who spent three months in jail as his case made its way through the court system. A judge eventually dismissed those criminal charges — and did so again when Burgos was charged with the crime a second time.

James Beasley Jr., Burgos’ lawyer, said Philabundance blamed Burgos in order to avoid blame for its own shoddy record-keeping — and failed to pursue evidence that another employee, who originally accused Burgos of the theft, might be to blame for the stolen gasoline. (That employee was terminated several months after Burgos was arrested.)

“What they did was wrong,” Beasley told Philly Mag. “They caused this guy to be in jail for three-and-a-half months.”

In court documents, Philabundance countered that there were good reasons to suspect Burgos: The wrongful gasoline charges, the agency’s lawyers said, came from gas stations near his home, charged to a Sunoco card assigned to a delivery truck that Burgos often drove.

In any case, Philabundance attorneys said, it was the independent decision of the district attorney’s office to prosecute Burgos for the crime.

“This is nothing more than a case in which a victim of a crime (Philabundance) reported that crime to the police and in good faith identified who they believed was the likely suspect,” Philabundance attorney Gerald Burns wrote in a court memorandum. “To hold Philabundance liable under these circumstances would … chill the reporting of crimes in the Commonwealth and impede law enforcement.”

(Documents containing Burgos’ complaint and Philabundance’s reply can be found below, as well as the docket sheet of the criminal case against Burgos.)

But Beasley said Philabundance “knowingly” continued to support the case against Burgos even after the evidence should’ve led the agency elsewhere. 

Philabundance, Beasley wrote in his own memorandum, “acted without probable cause and in doing so acted maliciously for purposes other than that of bringing the matter to justice.”

The jury agreed with the plaintiff. Beasley said it returned its verdict in less than an hour. Of the $500,000 verdict, $125,000 was for the damages Burgos suffered for his three months in jail; the remainder was assessed as punitive damages against Philabundance.

“He’s doing well,” Beasley said of his client. “He was more pissed-off than anything.”

Lindsey Hughes, a spokesperson for Philabundance, declined to comment how a $500,000 judgment might affect the agency’s operations. It had a budget of just under $54 million in 2013, a number that included nearly $40 million in donated food. 

“We disagree with the verdict and intend to appeal,” Hughes said. “We can’t really comment any further.”

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