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Parties to ‘Riot Act’ lawsuit postpone settlement talks

This police cruiser was heavily damaged during the April 2015 riots in Baltimore. (File Photo)

This police cruiser was heavily damaged during the April 2015 riots in Baltimore. (File Photo)

Parties to a massive lawsuit by dozens of Baltimore businesses over the city’s response to the 2015 unrest won’t come to the settlement table until they are finished exchanging and reviewing thousands of pages of documents in discovery.

The lawsuit, filed last year, makes claims under the Maryland Riot Act, which creates a cause of action when a municipality had notice of a riot and the ability to prevent damage.

Approximately 400 Baltimore businesses sustained around $9 million in damage during the rioting. After Freddie Gray’s death on April 19, 2015, protests grew, and then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts responded to reports of a large protest planned for April 25 by telling community leaders that peaceful demonstration was encouraged but they “must avoid any attempts to create a riot.” The plaintiffs argued the city “failed to take any reasonable steps to address the risk” of the unrest that occurred April 27.

Nearly 70 businesses are party to the suit and have been engaged in an exchange of written discovery responses and documents with the city. But both sides agree they will need more time to assess possible settlement options, and they jointly requested a postponement of a settlement conference scheduled for next month.

A federal magistrate judge granted the request Tuesday and a new date will be proposed at the close of discovery.

The parties anticipate “tens of thousands of pages of documents” to be exchanged in discovery and are also waiting for a ruling on the city’s motion to declare damages should be capped at $500,000 for all of the plaintiffs’ claims under the Local Government Tort Claims Act.

“Absent a decision on that Motion, there is no realistic probability that the seventy (70) Plaintiffs and Defendant will even be within the proverbial ballpark to reach any compromise,” the postponement motion states. The court has also required a person with authority for each plaintiff attend the settlement conference, not just the attorney.

Maryland passed its Riot Act in 1835 permitting citizens to seek compensation from the government for damage to property sustained in a violent disturbance.

The idea, at the time, was that such statutes would “deter the lawless since the sufferer must be compensated by a tax burden which will fall on all property, including that of the evil doers as members of the community,” according to a 1911 Supreme Court opinion.

The law has remained on the books with few substantial changes in nearly 200 years. It has had few modern applications but last saw use after the 1968 riots in Baltimore following the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

The case is Chae Brothers et al. v. Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al., 1:17-cv-01657.

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