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State fights $18.5M award in prison-bus slaying

The family and estate of an inmate who was slain on a prison bus should receive about 1 percent of the $18.5 million a jury awarded last fall, the attorney general’s office argued Monday in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Because the defendants are correctional officers, the state claims their liability for the death of Philip E. Parker Jr. is capped at $200,000 under the Maryland Tort Claims Act.

An attorney for Parker’s family said the limit should not apply since the jury at the October trial found one of the officers was grossly negligent.

Judge Sylvester B. Cox heard arguments Monday on the state’s motion to reduce the damages. Cox intends to rule within 30 days.

Parker was murdered in 2005 by fellow inmate Kevin Johns on a bus en route from Hagerstown to Baltimore. Parker had testified at a sentencing hearing for Johns in Hagerstown and the inmates were on their way back to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore.

It was night and Johns and Parker were on the bus with 35 other inmates when Johns strangled Parker by standing up, looping his elbow around Parker’s neck and sitting down again. The strangulation happened 15 minutes from their destination and guards did not discover Parker until their arrival.

In 2006, Parker’s mother, Melissa Rodriguez, filed suit against officers Larry Cooper, Robert Scott, Kenyatta Surgeon, Charles Gaither and Earl Generette. Her attorney, solo practitioner Samuel M. Shapiro, contended the officers had not properly monitored, searched or shackled the inmates on the trio and had not performed proper CPR on Parker.

Of the five officials, Cooper was found to be grossly negligent and Generette was found not liable. The other three were found to be negligent.

“This is simply not a gross negligence case,” Assistant Attorney General Rex S. Gordon told the court. “It hasn’t been from the start.”

Shapiro, though, argued that since the jury had found gross negligence in the case, the officers were no longer immune under the Maryland Tort Claims Act.

“You get a free ride because the state picks up the tab if you are negligent,” Shapiro said. “But, there is no ride if you are grossly negligent or malicious.”

Shapiro also contended that the officers were no longer immune because they violated the special relationship between “jailer and jailee” by failing to recognize the danger of putting the two inmates on a bus together.

Though Cox did not issue a ruling, he said he had to review some case material mentioned during the hearing and also questioned Cooper’s distinction by the jury in October.

“What is it about the actions or inactions that distinguished him from the others on the bus?” Cox asked.

Of the $18.5 million in damages, $10 million was for Parker’s estate; $1 million was for his father, Philip E. Parker Sr.; and $7.5 million for his mother, Rodriguez.

Parker was more than halfway through serving his 3 1/2 year sentence for attempted robbery when he was killed. Johns committed suicide in prison in 2009.