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Judge denies city’s request to cap potential damages in ‘Riot Act’ case

Police watch rioters on April 27, 2015 at an intersection in the Penn-North neighborhood. (File)

Police watch rioters on April 27, 2015 at an intersection in the Penn-North neighborhood. (File)

A federal judge declined to limit the potential damage claims of dozens of Baltimore businesses suing the city for failing to effectively respond to the 2015 unrest.

Baltimore asked for a declaratory judgment that the state’s statutory cap on damages when suing a municipality applied to the case, limiting the nearly 70 plaintiffs’ recovery to $500,000 total. The lawsuit, filed in 2017, involves 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 after Freddie Gray’s death on April 19, 2015. 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.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III ruled Tuesday that the statute provides that the injured party in a Riot Act lawsuit can recover actual damages without exception.

The Local Government Tort Claims Act provides that a local government cannot be liable for more than $200,000 in damages per individual claim or a total of $500,000 for claims arising from the same occurrence for damages due to tortious acts or omission.

However, the law only states that it repeals conflicting remedy provisions in laws enacted by local governments and does not refer to state laws like the Riot Act, according to Russell.

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis said the city is studying the court’s ruling and deciding what steps to take next.

The attorney for the plaintiffs, Peter K. Hwang, of Sung and Hwang LLP in Columbia, said he and his clients are pleased with the opinion.

The court got it absolutely right regarding the letter and spirit of the applicable laws, which support the common sense conclusion that the plaintiffs are entitled to full compensation under the Riot Act,” Hwang said.

The most recent use of the Riot Act came in 1968, when businesses sued over civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., prior to the enactment of the LGTCA. Russell notes that Maryland’s appellate courts have not ruled on whether the cap applies to Riot Act claims but so far have not extended it to statutory torts.

Waiting for the outcome of the city’s motion was part of the reason the parties have not approached the settlement table, according to filings in November.

“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,” a postponement motion stated.

The parties are also still exchanging and reviewing thousands of pages of documents in discovery. A new settlement conference date will be proposed at the close of discovery.

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

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