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Md. top court: Tort claims act covers gross negligence

Prison inmate's family sought to recover $18.5M wrongful death verdict

A Maryland law limiting the state’s liability for injuries caused by its employees applies even when the workers were grossly negligent, the state’s top court unanimously ruled Thursday in rejecting a prison inmate’s family’s effort to recover an $18.5 million judgment in his slaying by a fellow inmate just feet away from a guard.

The Maryland Tort Claims Act’s cap of $400,000 per claimant makes no exception for gross negligence, the Court of Appeals said in its 7-0 decision. The high court also indicated the state’s limited liability also applies to intentional torts, though the issue of intentionality was not before the judges in the case.

MTCA’s cap applies “in any action for damages for personal injury or wrongful death,” the court said, quoting from the statute and emphasizing “any.”

“Nothing in the language quoted above limits the purview of the statute with respect to judgments arising from intentional actions or gross negligence,” Judge Robert N. McDonald wrote for the high court. “Under the oft-stated principles of statutory construction, that could be not only the beginning but the end of the analysis.”

The court rejected the argument by Philip E. Parker’s family that the MTCA should apply to grossly negligent acts because the law’s intent was to stabilize the liability insurance market, which generally does not cover gross negligence.

“(T)hat legislative history does not indicate an intention to exclude judgments based on claims arising from intentional or grossly negligent conduct and we decline to insert a qualification in the statute that the legislature did not include in the text,” McDonald wrote.

Parker was killed in February 2005 after he had testified at a sentencing hearing for Kevin Johns in Hagerstown. Parker, Johns and 35 other inmates were returning by bus 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.

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.

Parker’s family sued the state and guard Larry Cooper — whom the state fired for standing by while Johns murdered Parker — in Baltimore City Circuit Court. A jury found Cooper liable for gross negligence and awarded the family $18.5 million.

However, Judge Sylvester B. Cox said Cooper’s actions were merely negligent and limited the family’s award to the MTCA cap of $200,000 per claimant, which was the cap for causes of action arising before Oct. 1, 2015.

But the Court of Appeals in 2015 reinstated the jury’s finding of gross negligence. “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,” Judge Shirley M. Watts wrote for the court then.

On remand, Cox reduced the $18.5 million award to $1.8 million, citing Maryland’s cap on noneconomic damages and applied the MTCA to the state’s share of the damages. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld Cox’s decision in an unreported opinion last April, prompting Parker’s family to seek review by the Court of Appeals.

Cary J. Hansel, the family’s attorney, said Thursday that he is “obviously disappointed in the result but proud of our clients for fighting the good fight for their son for what has been a dozen years.”

The focus now will be on collecting the $1.6 million judgment against Cooper, which with interest has now risen to nearly $3 million, said Hansel, of Hansel Law P.C. in Baltimore.

Hansel said he hopes the Maryland attorney general’s office presses the state Board of Public Works to approve payment of the judgment against Cooper, as the former guard remains a client of the attorney general.

“We look forward to them making the submission” to BPW, Hansel said. “We look forward to seeing some justice done when the Board of Public Works does the right thing.”

The board is comprised of Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy Kopp.

The attorney general’s office issued a statement Thursday that it is reviewing the case and has no comment at this time.

The Court of Appeals rendered its decision Thursday in Melissa Rodriguez et al. v. Larry Cooper et al., No. 27 September Term 2017.

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