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Baltimore seeks Court of Appeals input on damage cap in ‘Riot Act’ lawsuit

The burnt out DTLR store on Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Baltimore the day after the riots. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

The burnt out DTLR store on Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Baltimore the day after the riots. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Baltimore is asking for Maryland’s top court to be allowed to answer novel questions of state law involved in federal litigation over damages to businesses sustained in riots in April 2015.

U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III sided with the plaintiffs last month and declined to limit the potential damages for the businesses. The lawsuit claims the city is liable under the Maryland Riot Act because it had notice of a riot and the ability to prevent damage.

On Wednesday the city asked Russell to reconsider, vacate his ruling and certify questions of law to the Court of Appeals “because the answers to those questions are important aspects of state law that are likely to be wholly determinative of this complex and costly litigation.”

Maryland law permits the Court of Appeals to answer a question of law certified to it by a federal court if there is no controlling appellate opinion and the answer will help resolve the litigation. Guidance from the court will resolve the issue of damages and guide the parties in settlement negotiations, according to the city’s motion.

In a note, the city “acknowledges that motions for reconsideration are disfavored and further acknowledges, with candor, as it must, that it would have been wise to have requested certification of controlling questions of state law prior to, rather than only after, this Court expended time and resources examining those questions in response to the City’s motion for declaratory judgment.”

The plaintiffs were invited to join the motion but had not decided as of Wednesday, according to the motion. An attorney for the plaintiffs, Peter K. Hwang, of Sung and Hwang LLP in Columbia, was not immediately available for comment.

The lawsuit is the first to make use of the Riot Act since the 1960s and the first since the passage of the Local Government Tort Claims Act, which 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.

Baltimore asked Russell to issue a declaratory judgment that the cap applied and the nearly 70 plaintiffs would be limited to $500,000 in total recovery, but Russell ruled on Dec. 18 that the cap does not apply.

Russell determined the statute allows an injured party to recover actual damages without exception. The LGTCA only states it repeals conflicting remedy provision in laws enacted by local governments and does not reference state laws such as the Riot Act.

Baltimore contends this was a clear legal error because the plain language of the LGTCA does not provide an exception for Riot Act claims and the legislature intended to cap damages in all cases involving alleged torts by municipal employees.

The General Assembly abrogated a Maryland Court of Appeals decision in 2001 to make it clear the cap should be applied broadly for any claim for damages against a local government or its employees, according to the motion. The Court of Special Appeals later said the change made it so the court could “no longer infer that the legislature intended to differentiate between locally enacted law and state law, including state constitutional law.”

Even if a conflict exists between the statutes, Baltimore further contends, the more recent statute’s intentions should control interpretation. The cap, enacted in 1987, should be found to have implicitly repealed any inconsistent provision in the Riot Act, enacted in 1835.

Baltimore City Solicitor Andre M. Davis declined to comment on the filing Wednesday.

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

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  1. Failing to seek certification of question earlier makes it look like the city wants two bites at the apple.


    Baltimore City has absolutely no liquidity. Does anybody ever think about that?