Baltimore County lawyers: $38M award in Gaines case 'based on guesswork,' and should be overturned

Attorneys for Baltimore County claim in court filings that jurors who awarded more than $38 million to the family of Korryn Gaines — who was shot and killed by a police officer in 2016 — based their decision more on “guesswork, speculation and sympathy” than on the evidence presented in court.

In motions filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, county attorneys asked a judge to set aside last month’s jury decision and order a new trial, or reduce the amount of the financial award. The motions were made public Tuesday.

The $38 million award is one of the largest ever against a Baltimore-area police force, and came in a case that drew national attention.

The county’s petition repeats many of the assertions it made at trial, including that the officer who fatally shot Gaines, Cpl. Royce Ruby Jr., was acting reasonably based on the situation at hand. It also criticizes amounts awarded to Gaines’ children as “excessive,” and contends Gaines’ estate should not receive any monetary compensation.

County officers went to Gaines’ Randallstown apartment Aug. 1, 2016, to serve warrants on Gaines and her fiance. The fiance left with their infant daughter, Karsyn, while Gaines holed up in the apartment with her 5-year-old son, Kodi, and a shotgun.

Gaines, 26, broadcast parts of the six-hour standoff on social media before police had her accounts shut down. Kodi eventually went into the kitchen and Gaines later followed, and Ruby said he fired through a wall into the apartment after he said he saw the barrel of the shotgun raise.

“The only facts that matter were what Corporal Ruby reasonably believed immediately prior to and at the moment he fired the first shot,” wrote the county’s lawyers, James S. Ruckle Jr. and Jordan V. Watts Jr.

County lawyers say Ruby was “confronted by a woman with a loaded shotgun who abruptly went from a position of visibility to an offensive position of partial concealment.” They also noted that Ruby testified “he was sure Gaines intended to fire the shotgun.” After the first shot, police went into the apartment and Ruby shot Gaines three more times.

Kodi was hit in the face and arm by bullets that ricocheted. His father, Corey Cunningham, testified that Kodi is “a shell of himself” after witnessing his mother’s death and enduring surgeries and painful medical complications.

In the motions, county lawyers criticize the $32,873,542.29 award for Kodi, which includes $23,542.29 for medical bills and the remainder — $32,850,000 — for non-economic damages such as pain and suffering.

“There is no rational basis for an award of non-economic damages of $32,850,000.00 to Kodi for the injuries he sustained and therefore the award is based on guesswork, speculation and sympathy,” county lawyers wrote.

During the trial, Kodi’s lawyer, Kenneth Ravenell, suggested that the jury award Kodi $50 per hour for the 70 or 75 years he might live, which would add up to more than $32 million.

“Mr. Ravenell essentially invited the jury to engage in pure conjecture and sympathy, which resulted in an award in a grossly excessive amount,” county lawyers wrote.

Ravenell declined to comment Tuesday, saying he was reviewing the county’s motions.

The county’s attorneys also claim that Kodi did not have his civil rights violated by Ruby’s shot because he wasn’t the intended target. Kodi “was the victim of an unintended consequence,” which might merit a claim of negligence, but not a claim of a civil rights violation, attorneys wrote.

County attorneys also said the award made to Gaines’ infant daughter, Karsyn — more than $4.5 million — is “grossly excessive and should shock the conscience of the court.”

And they argued that attorneys representing Karsyn and Gaines’ parents, Rhanda Dormeus and Ryan Gaines, “failed to present even a scintilla of evidence in support of their claims for damages.”

Likewise, Gaines’ estate shouldn’t receive any award, county lawyers said. The jury had awarded $250,000 in compensatory damages to Gaines’ estate, but county lawyers wrote: “There is no clear evidence whether Korryn Gaines survived the first shot and suffered conscious pain and suffering” that would merit an award.

Lastly, county lawyers said documentation of the verdict was flawed because jurors were not asked to decide how much of the damages awarded were due to violations of state civil rights statutes and how much was for violations of federal civil rights statutes.

State law caps payouts for state violations to $800,000, while there is no cap on damages related to violations of the federal statute. But county lawyers argue the state’s cap can’t be applied if the damages aren’t separated between the two different statutes.

The lawyers for the Gaines family will file written responses to the motions before a judge makes a decision.

Landon White, who represents Gaines’ father, said the county’s motions were not unexpected.

“At the end of the day, the litigation process doesn’t stop at trial,” White said. “When you’re litigating, you have to prepare not only for pre-trial and trial, but also post-trial. This is all part of the process.”

J. Wyndal Gordon, who represents Gaines’ mother, daughter and estate, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

pwood@baltsun.com

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