Maryland's Court of Appeals on Monday upheld a cap on monetary awards in lawsuits against local governments, turning back an effort to collect $11.5 million awarded to the family of a Prince George's County man fatally shot by police.
The ruling means Prince George's County has to pay only $400,000 in the case stemming from a 2008 shooting. The family of Manuel Espina asked the state's highest court to overturn lower court rulings that reduced the jury verdict.
The case had been closely watched across the state. Baltimore and other localities had supported Prince George's County in the case. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said that a ruling in favor of the family could force local governments to pay out millions more when officers are sued for civil rights violations.
"The same county government that deprived Mr. Espina of his life has now successfully deprived his family of a meaningful remedy for the loss of that life," said the Espina family's attorney, Timothy F. Maloney. "This decision effectively closes the doors of Maryland state courthouses to significant civil rights and other constitutional claims. These cases will now be tried under federal civil rights law in federal courts."
Baltimore attorney Victoria M. Shearer, who represented Prince George's County before the high court, could not be reached.
In support of Prince George's County, another Baltimore law firm, Funk & Bolton, filed briefs on behalf of Harford and Montgomery counties and the Local Government Insurance Trust, a joint insurance program or pool for localities. Attorney Karen Kruger said taxpayer money fills potholes, builds schools and provides for hundreds of other government services — not just damages in civil lawsuits.
"The government treasury needs to serve many purposes for many citizens," she said. "The General Assembly put a reasonable limit on damages."
The Local Government Tort Claims Act, which arises from a law enacted in the 1980s, generally limits a local government's payout in a lawsuit to $200,000 per plaintiff or $500,000 for claims connected to a single incident.
Baltimore taxpayers have potentially saved millions of dollars in recent years as a result of the cap. A Baltimore Sun investigation published last fall found the city had paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements since 2011 for 102 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct. The amount paid out could have been significantly higher without the cap.
"I'm extremely disappointed," said Baltimore attorney A. Dwight Pettit, who frequently represents plaintiffs in lawsuits against police officers. The appellate ruling "deprives people of damages awarded by juries. To me, it's a sad day in Maryland."
The cap has been challenged and upheld several times in Maryland. Espina's family argued against the cap on constitutional grounds in 2012, but the Court of Special Appeals rejected that argument. The Court of Appeals did the same.
Plaintiffs could seek to recoup damages by garnishing an officer's wages. But plaintiffs' lawyers say officers have limited financial means and could file bankruptcy to avoid paying.
Civil rights groups, watchdog organizations and plaintiffs' attorneys believe the cap stymies any economic incentive for local governments to combat police brutality and make other reforms.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Justice Center and the Caucus of African American Leaders filed legal briefs supporting the Espina family.
The groups believe that larger penalties are necessary to ensure justice in police brutality cases. They also say that the cap doesn't deter officers from repeated misconduct, and they note that criminal charges are rarely brought
"We are deeply disappointed for the Espina family, who have already endured such tragedy," said Deborah Jeon, the ACLU of Maryland's legal director. "Today's decision could make it more difficult for family members of victims of police misconduct to win justice that spurs accountability and reform."
The Prince George's County lawsuit stems from an August 2008 incident in which off-duty county Officer Steven Jackson noticed Espina drinking a beer with a friend outside Espina's Langley Park apartment, as his wife and son prepared for his birthday party.
Jackson followed the men into the building, using a master key he had because he worked a second job as a security guard there. The officer said Espina elbowed him in the back of the neck after being ordered to place his hands against a wall. A struggle ensued, the officer said, and both men tumbled down a flight of stairs.
In Jackson's account, four or five other men joined the fight, and he drew his service weapon and ordered them to back away. Jackson said he shot Espina after the man grabbed his baton. Witnesses said Jackson hit Espina in the face and threw him down the stairs.
One woman testified that she saw Jackson beating Espina with a baton and that no other men were in the apartment when Jackson fired. The jury found that Jackson acted with malice. The apartment complex that employed Jackson paid the Espina family an undisclosed amount of money to settle the lawsuit.
Jackson was not prosecuted in the Espina killing, and a police trial board acquitted him of administrative charges.