Maryland family challenges state cap on damage awards

How much is Maryland man's life worth: $400,000 or $11 million?

In a case closely watched across the state, relatives of a Prince George's County man killed by police asked Maryland's top court Monday to strike down a law that cut their damage award from $11.5 million to $400,000.

The family of Manuel Espina, who was shot by a county officer in 2008, has challenged a state law limiting the amount of money people can receive in suing a local government employee. The jury award was drastically reduced due to the cap.

Baltimore and other localities have supported Prince George's County in the case before the Court of Appeals. The law's backers, including Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, say that a ruling in favor of the family could force local govenments to pay out millions more when officers are sued for civil rights violations.

But 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. The cap, 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.

"The $200,000 cap has not been addressed in 27 years," the Espina family's attorney, Timothy F. Maloney, argued Monday, while noting that the original statutory payout equals about $94,000 in today's dollars. "This is a police killing that could have been avoided. Eleven million is not a runaway verdict in this case."

The cap has potentially saved Baltimore taxpayers millions of dollars in recent years. 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.

In the aftermath of the Sun investigation, some lawmakers and activists increased calls to change the Local Government Tort Claims Act when the General Assembly opens its 2015 session Wednesday.

Among the states that have caps, the top damage award can vary, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. For example, Delaware's cap is $300,000, but that can be exceeded when a local government buys outside insurance. Pennsylvania's cap is $500,000.

The Prince George's County lawsuit stems from an August 2008 incident in which 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 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.

Baltimore attorney Victoria M. Shearer, who is representing Prince George's County, told the appeals court Monday that the cap is working just as legislators designed it. "It does not insulate the government or employees from paying damages," she said.

Judges countered with questions about whether fees for lawyers and other experts erode the payouts, or whether the cap should apply when civil juries find police liable for killing someone.

At the end of her argument, Shearer told the judges that Espina's family could have taken the case to federal court — where no cap exists — instead of a state court.

"They believe that the juries there don't like police officers," she said about Prince George's County Circuit Court.

Maloney countered by telling the judges that the case is an "access-to-justice issue."

He urged the judges to examine two other excessive force complaints against Jackson that occurred in the 90 days before he killed Espina. "This is a police killing that could have been avoided," Maloney said.

Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Justice Center and the Caucus of African American Leaders have 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 —especially if they escape criminal charges over the accusations.

Jackson was not prosecuted in the Espina killing, and a police trial board acquitted him of administrative charges.

In Baltimore, The Sun found that taxpayers had paid out more than $600,000 in settlements in five brutality lawsuits against one officer. In such settlements, the city and officer do not acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Some other similarly sized police departments have paid more than $1 million to settle individual police misconduct cases. The Dallas Police Department has paid $6.6 million in 26 settlements and judgments since 2011.

In support of Prince George's County, another Baltimore law firm, Funk & Bolton, filed amicus briefs on behalf of Harford and Montgomery counties and the Local Government Insurance Trust. Rawlings-Blake and the City Council of Baltimore also asked the court to rule in favor of the county.

The city argued in court papers that the cap is needed to protect budgets and to predict exposure for insurance purposes. The city also said employees are responsible for a payout when they are found to act with malice.

"Thanks to the" state law, the Espina family has the "possibility of receiving at least part of the judgment from Jackson's employer," the brief said.

mpuente@baltsun.com

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