In a case that could greatly raise the liability stakes for cities and counties across Maryland, the state’s highest court will decide how much Prince George’s County owes the family of a man who was killed by a police officer: the $11.5 million a jury awarded, or the $400,000 the judge ultimately ordered.
The Court of Appeals on Thursday agreed to consider whether a police officer’s actions can be so egregious that they nullify the county’s protection from damages under Maryland’s Local Government Tort Claims Act.
The case was brought by the widow and adult son of Manuel Espina, who was killed by an off-duty officer in 2008.
A Prince George’s County jury found the officer had violated Espina’s constitutional rights and assessed the damages at $11.5 million. However, the trial judge reduced the award to $200,000 per plaintiff under the state’s Local Government Tort Claims Act.
The Court of Special Appeals upheld the reduction in a published opinion last December, saying the cap covers “damages resulting from tortious acts or omissions,” whether or not they are so serious that they rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
The family then sought review by the Court of Appeals, arguing that the cap does not apply to unconstitutional behavior. The court will hear argument this fall.
Timothy F. Maloney, the family’s attorney, declined to comment on the case. He is with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt.
Daniel Karp, who represented Prince George’s County, did not return a telephone message seeking comment. He is with Karpinski, Colaresi & Karp P.A. in Baltimore.
Espina was shot to death by Steven Jackson, an off-duty police officer, on Aug. 16, 2008. Espina’s wife, Estela, and his grown son, also named Manuel, filed suit against the county nearly a year later.
During a 23-day trial in early 2011, the jury heard conflicting testimony from Jackson and other witnesses.
Jackson testified he saw Espina and another man drinking beer outside a Langley Park apartment, in a complex where Jackson worked as a part-time security guard, and followed them into the building to investigate possible violations of loitering and open container laws. Testimony at trial indicated that friends had joined the family to celebrate Espina’s birthday.
According to Jackson, Espina became aggressive and started a struggle in which his friends joined, leading Jackson to draw his service revolver. The officer said he was in fear for his life when he fired the fatal shot, which struck Espina in the stomach.
But other witnesses testified Espina was unarmed and took no offensive action against Jackson, who was shouting profanities throughout the altercation — and who stopped Espina’s son from performing CPR on his dying father by having him put in handcuffs.
The jury deliberated for three days before finding the county liable for wrongful death and for violating Espina’s due process rights under Article 24 of Maryland’s Declaration of Rights. On April 1, 2011, the jury awarded Espina’s wife and son $11,505,000. Judge Albert W. Northrop later reduced the verdict against the county to $405,000, citing the LGTCA cap and the family’s $5,000 in funeral expenses.
The Court of Special Appeals upheld Northrop’s ruling on the cap, but said it applies to the total amount, not just non-economic damages. As a result, the court struck the $5,000 award for funeral expenses.
The case is Estela Espina v. Steven Jackson et al., No. 35, September Term 2014.