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Md. high court will weigh constitutionality of cap in state tort claims

“This case highlights the unconstitutional impact of the MTCA in extreme cases such as Daquan’s,” wrote his attorney, Cary Hansel. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

Maryland’s top court will consider whether the limit on damages in personal injury lawsuits against the state passes constitutional muster when the injured plaintiff’s costs far exceed the statutory cap.

The Court of Appeals this month agreed to hear the appeal of a savagely beaten and severely injured detention center inmate whose jury award of $25 million for what will be a lifetime of medical expenses and mental anguish was reduced to $200,000 under the Maryland Tort Claims Act. The intermediate Court of Special Appeals upheld the reduction in June.

In his successful request for high court review, Daquan Wallace said through counsel that the grossly inadequate MTCA recovery violates the Maryland Constitution’s guarantee of a just legal remedy for the 2014 beating that has left him confined to a wheelchair and rendered him unable to speak.

Under Article 19 of the Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, judges should be empowered to set a just, minimum recovery that need not be as high as the jury’s verdict but need not be as low as the MTCA cap, which is now $400,000, attorney Cary J. Hansel III wrote.

“This case highlights the unconstitutional impact of the MTCA in extreme cases such as Daquan’s – after enduring utter agony for years due to his injuries, including the vicious attack itself, the coma, the tracheotomy, the feeding tube, confinement to a wheelchair, muteness, over a year without being able to communicate and the inability and indignities of not being able to bathe, use the restroom or engage in any of the activities of daily living unassisted, he is set to receive not even a single penny for his pain, his suffering, his permanent disabilities, or any of the past and future expenses that he will now be forced to endure as a result of his condition,” Hansel wrote.

“Despite Daquan’s severe injuries and how egregiously inadequate $200,000 is as a remedy, COSA (the Court of Special Appeals) refused…to even consider whether the MTCA cap could provide a constitutionally adequate remedy to Daquan,” added Hansel, of Hansel Law PC in Baltimore. “This ruling leaves the state unfettered by its own Constitution, contrary to every principle of democratic constitutionalism underpinning our government.”

Assistant Maryland Attorney General Laura Mullally countered that the limitation on damages is constitutional.

The “sovereign immunity” doctrine protects the state from being sued unless the protection is waived by an act of the General Assembly. With the MTCA, the General Assembly waived the immunity in personal injury lawsuits with the qualification that damages would be limited, Mullally wrote in the state’s unsuccessful request that the high court deny Wallace’s appeal.

“Even if the limitation were a ‘cap’ on damages, setting a limitation on damages is a constitutional and inherently legislative, not judicial, function,” Mullally added. “The intermediate appellate court properly rejected Mr. Wallace’s Article 19 argument when it concluded that it could not expand the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity.”

The Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments in March. The high court is expected to render its decision by Aug. 31 in Daquan M. Wallace et al. v. State of Maryland et al., No. 27, September Term 2022.

According to trial testimony, Wallace was pummeled by gang members as prison guards looked on or away.

The Baltimore City Circuit Court jury found the state liable for failing to protect Wallace from the violence, engaging in policies or practices that violated Wallace’s rights under the Maryland Constitution and negligently training or supervising its guards. The jurors awarded Wallace $15 million in damages based on the state’s negligence and $10 million based on the state’s violation of his constitutional rights.

The trial judge, citing the MTCA, reduced the award to $200,000 and the Court of Special Appeals agreed in an unreported opinion.