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Damages cap applies to constitutional violations, court says

ANNAPOLIS — A statutory cap on damages for victims of governmental misconduct applies even to victims of egregiously unconstitutional police misconduct, Maryland’s top court ruled unanimously Monday in upholding an $11 million reduction in a jury’s award to the family of a person killed by an off-duty Prince George’s County police officer.

The case had drawn an amicus curiae brief from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Public Justice Center, and the Caucus of African American Leaders, which had asked the Maryland Court of Appeals to step in to ensure that victims of police abuses can hold law enforcement accountable when the government does not.

Writing for the court, however, Judge Clayton Greene Jr. stated: “There are no exceptions in the [Local Government Tort Claims Act] for intentional torts or torts based upon intentional violations of the Maryland constitution.”

“Including … state constitutional claims within the scope of the LGTCA damages cap is clearly consistent with the Legislature’s goal of limiting civil liability” for local jurisdictions, Greene added.

The high court’s decision upheld a trial judge’s reduction to $400,000 of a jury’s $11.5 million damages award to the widow and a son of Manuel Espina, who was killed by the off-duty officer in 2008. The judge correctly said the cap was mandated under the LGTCA, the high court said in affirming a ruling by the intermediate Court of Special Appeals.

In its 7-0 decision, the Court of Appeals rejected the family’s argument that the act does not apply when a police officer’s deprivation of a person’s constitutional right — in this case the right to life — was so unjustified as to “shock the conscience “ of a reasonable person.

No exceptions

Greene, citing the law’s legislative history, said that “the General Assembly was aware that the LGTCA would be read as covering a broad range of civil actions and nonetheless declined to carve out any exceptions.”

Greene noted that people whose federal constitutional rights are violated by the police or other governmental agents can bring suit in U.S. District Court under Section 1983 of the 1871 federal Civil Rights Act. Damages in those cases are not capped.

The family’s attorney, Timothy F. Maloney, assailed the court’s decision.

‘ “Today the Court of Appeals determined that $200,000 [per claimant] was a reasonable remedy for a jury-determined police murder,” Maloney, of Joseph, Greenwalk & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt, stated in an email. “The verdict had been $11 million, 55 times that amount.”

“The same county government that deprived Mr. Espina of his life has now successfully deprived his family of a meaningful remedy for the loss of that life,” Maloney added. “This decision effectively closes the doors of Maryland state courthouses to significant civil rights and other constitutional claims. These cases will now be tried under federal civil rights law in federal courts.”

Sen. Robert A. “Bobby Zirkin, who chairs the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, said the LGTCA’s cap on damages seems too low and often does not even compensate victims for their medical bills. However, while the General Assembly might be willing to raise the cap, limitations on recovery will likely remain, he added.

‘No will to eliminate cap’

“I don’t think the current system is reasonable for victims,” said Zirkin, D-Baltimore County. “I don’t think the will is there to eliminate the cap.”

Victoria M. Shearer, attorney for Prince George’s County, declined to comment on the court’s decision. Shearer is with Karpinski, Colaresi & Karp P.A. in Baltimore.

The case before the high court began when 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 Prince George’s County Circuit Court 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 it was Espina’s 44th birthday.

According to Jackson, Espina became aggressive and started a struggle that his friends in the building joined, leading Jackson to draw his service revolver. Espina removed his hands from Jackson’s baton, Jackson testified, but did not back off. 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.

Jury deliberations

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 the Maryland Constitution’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 Espina family reached a confidential settlement with the apartment manager, Gables Residential Services, during trial, Maloney said.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the judge’s reduction in a published opinion in December 2013, saying the cap covers “damages resulting from tortious acts or omissions” and is not limited to nonconstitutional claims.

The intermediate court added that the cap applies to the total amount, not just economic damages. As the result, the court struck the $5,000 award for funeral expenses.

The family then sought review by the Court of Appeals. Manuel, the son, died while the case was on appeal.

The case is Estela Espina et al. v. Steven Jackson et al., No. 35, Sept. Term 2014.