Prison guards and other public officials can be held personally liable for deaths and injuries caused by their gross negligence, Maryland’s top court has unanimously held in ruling that a correctional officer is not immune from liability for one inmate’s strangulation of another on a prison bus headed to Baltimore.
Maryland common law affords public officials protection from personal liability for simple negligence, which is compensable to victims under the state and local tort claims acts, the Court of Appeals said. However, neither common law nor statute protects in instances of gross negligence, such as guard Larry Cooper’s failure to intervene as Kevin Johns killed fellow prisoner Philip E. Parker Jr. in February 2005, the high court said.
“Although any murder is abhorrent, this one was particularly heinous,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote Friday. “Cooper, the officer responsible for protecting Parker and all of the inmates on the bus, sat several feet away while Parker was systematically choked to death and had his throat cut; and Cooper took no action whatsoever.”
In its decision, the high court rejected the state’s argument that public officials lose their immunity from liability when their actions are not just grossly negligent but performed with the intent to harm.
“[W]e hold that gross negligence is an exception to common law public official immunity; in other words, if a public official’s actions are grossly negligent, the public official is not entitled to common law public official immunity,” Watts wrote. “To hold otherwise would effectively leave a void in liability, leaving plaintiffs … without a remedy for a public official’s gross negligence. We would be remiss to leave Maryland common law in this position.”
Cary J. Hansel, the attorney for Parker’s family, called the decision “a big step forward in Maryland law for victims of civil rights violations” involving gross negligence.
Hansel, of Hansel Law PC in Baltimore, also voiced dismay at the state government’s willingness to defend to Maryland’s top court the actions of a prison guard whom a jury and an intermediate appellate panel found grossly negligent.
“The state, despite being of, by and for the people, is willing to make any argument, no matter how devastating it would be to the Constitution or Maryland law, to avoid liability,” Hansel said. “Even the most heinous violations are going to be defended to the death.”
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the decision or Hansel’s remarks.
$18.5M jury verdict
The court’s decision regarding an official’s personal liability comes amid heightened concern about police brutality following the death of Freddie Gray while in custody in Baltimore. Six Baltimore police officers are scheduled to stand trial this fall on criminal charges in the case.
Baltimore City Solicitor George A. Nilson said Friday that he will review the decision to determine its implications for civil claims of police brutality. He added that few claims of brutality result in verdicts of gross negligence by the officer.
The Court of Appeals’ decision reinstates a Baltimore City Circuit Court jury’s finding in October 2011 that Cooper was grossly negligent and potentially personally liable for Parker’s death. The jury also found the state liable and awarded Parker’s parents and his estate a total of $18.5 million.
Baltimore City Circuit Judge Sylvester B. Cox overturned the jury’s finding as to Cooper, stating that as a matter of law his actions were not grossly negligent because they were not “outrageous or “utterly indifferent to the rights of others.” He ultimately cut the jury award to $600,000, citing the Maryland Tort Claims Act’s cap of $200,000 and the three claimants.
The intermediate Court of Special Appeals last August found Cox had erred in overturning the jury. The appellate court also limited the state’s total liability to $200,000, the maximum available for one incident under the MTCA.
Hansel also challenged the constitutionality of the MTCA’s $200,000 limit on damages in the case but the Court of Appeals declined to hear his appeal.
The Court of Appeals sent the case back to the circuit court for an assessment of damages owed by Cooper to Parker’s parents, who had sued for wrongful death.
‘Total disregard for his duty’
Parker was murdered on the bus after he had testified at a sentencing hearing for Johns in Hagerstown. Parker, Johns and 35 other inmates were returning at night to the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore.
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, according to trial testimony.
“It is an unfortunate reality that prison can be dangerous for both inmates and correctional officers,” Watts wrote. “In this instance, however, the circumstances demonstrate that Parker’s murder was accomplished in the face of Cooper’s total disregard for his duty as a correctional officer and indifference to the consequences to Parker.”
Parker was more than halfway through serving his three-and-a-half year sentence for attempted robbery when he was killed. Johns committed suicide in prison in 2009.
The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in Larry Cooper v. Melissa Rodriguez et al., No. 87, September Term 2014.