BOUND BROOK - The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office does not have to turn over its criminal investigative files to the parties in litigation over a 2020 fire which destroyed a West Main Street apartment building and jumped across the street to damage another apartment building under construction.
The spectacular seven-alarm fire that raged for hours on Jan. 12, 2020, destroyed a six-story apartment building under development by Meridia Downtown Urban Renewal.
Fanned by winter winds while the blaze was out of control, flames jumped across Main Street and destroyed another apartment building under construction owned by West Main Street Urban Renewal.
In all, the fire caused $52 million in damage.
Two days later, Bound Brook resident Juan Padilla was charged by the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office with setting the Meridia building on fire.
American Zurich, which insured the West Main Street Urban Renewal building, paid out $4.16 million in claims to the developer.
American Zurich then filed suit in April 2020 against Meridia to recoup the money it had already paid out.
In the lawsuit, American Zurich claimed Meridia had been negligent by improperly failing to secure the construction site and that allowed Padilla to get onto the property and set the fire.
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It's not the only lawsuit Meridia is facing in connection with the fire.
In April, Selective Insurance Company of New England filed suit against Meridia to recoup the $485,739 it had paid to Anthony and Elizabeth Pranzatelli, whose Main Street store across from the Meridia property was also destroyed in the fire. Anthony Pranzatelli is a member of the Bound Brook Borough Council.
The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office became involved in the ongoing litigation when Meridia filed a subpoena with the prosecutor's office for the criminal investigative files.
But the prosecutor's office asked the Superior Court to quash the subpoena, arguing that the documents were part of an ongoing investigation and could not be released.
Padilla had been indicted in December 2020 on arson charges. No trial date has been scheduled.
American Zurich then joined with Meridia to oppose the prosecutor's office's motion.
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Superior Court Judge Robert Wilson on Jan. 3, 2022, rejected the prosecutor's office's claim that the materials were confidential. Wilson ordered the prosecutor's office to turn over videos and photographs from the investigation, Padilla's statements and witness statements.
The prosecutor's office was granted a stay on Wilson's order and appealed the judge's decision to the Appellate Division, which ruled in favor of the prosecutor's office on Wednesday.
Wilson, the appellate panel wrote in its 19-page ruling, "failed to properly balance the (prosecutor's office's) interest in an ongoing criminal investigation."
The litigants had already received copies of a report by Detective Jeffrey Dockery that concluded Padilla had started the fire and that fencing had only been secured on the three of four sides of the property.
The report also referenced video from a police car and surveillance footage from nearby businesses that showed Padilla walking through the site and remaining there for a half hour, court papers say.
Lawyers for Meridia argued that video was important in the lawsuit because American Zurich had alleged that Padilla had bypassed the fence and the developer was negligent for failing to secure the property.
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American Zurich argued that it wanted the footage because it would show "factual issues" in the case, including the location of the fence or whether the gates were locked.
After the prosecutor's office handed over an inventory of the evidence, which totaled 471 pages of documents, six CDs, 14 DVDs and a flash drive, American Zurich requested all the documents, except for medical records of an injured firefighter, a psychological examination of Padilla, a map and weather observations.
American Zurich argued that it needed the evidence of Padilla's pre-fire social media posts where he allegedly made incriminating statements about starting a fire.
Zurich maintained that the materials were not confidential because they had already been forwarded to Padilla's public defender as part of the discovery process.
In his decision, Wilson denied access to all the files, but wrote that the lawsuit was "a very serious litigation" involving millions of dollars and the "substantial nature" of the civil suit outweighed the prosecutor's office's need for confidentiality because the investigation had been completed and Padilla had been indicted.
Wilson ordered the prosecutor's office to turn over photographs, the video footage and copies of statements by Padilla and witnesses.
The appellate court wrote that the judge "mistakenly exercised his discretion by failing to judiciously and painstakingly balance the competing interests at stake."
The appellate court also quoted a previous ruling that the amount of damages sought "does not of itself demonstrate a need to invade a confidential public record."
The appellate court concluded that the report prepared by Dockery, the detective, contained most of the information sought in the subpoena.
Mike Deak is a reporter for mycentraljersey.com. To get unlimited access to his articles on Somerset and Hunterdon counties, please subscribe or activate your digital account.
This article originally appeared on MyCentralJersey.com: Bound Brook fire: NJ court blocks criminal documents release