Dawson lawsuit ruling is upheld

The Baltimore Sun

City and state officials cannot be held liable for failing to protect the Dawson family from the 2002 firebombing that killed the couple and their five children, Maryland's highest court ruled yesterday.

The Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling dismissing a $14 million lawsuit filed by surviving relatives of the Dawson family.

In the suit, the relatives argued that Baltimore officials endangered the Dawsons with the "Believe" campaign encouraging city residents to report criminal activity and then failed to adequately protect the family after members had repeatedly called police to complain about drug activity.

On Oct. 16, 2002, Angela and Carnell Dawson's East Baltimore rowhouse was burned, killing seven members of the family. Darrell L. Brooks pleaded guilty in federal court to the crime and is serving a life sentence without parole.

The crime outraged the city, and late last year city and state leaders dedicated a community center and haven for children at the site of the arson, at Eden and Preston streets in the Oliver neighborhood.

The $14 million lawsuit was filed against the state, the mayor of Baltimore, the City Council, the state's attorney, the city Police Department, the police commissioner and one of his predecessors, and numerous police officers.

"Obviously it was a terrible tragedy, which nobody wished on the family," said City Solicitor George A. Nilson yesterday. "The fact of the matter is, you can't hold the city responsible for that tragedy."

In dismissing the relatives' lawsuit in June, Circuit Court Judge M. Brooke Murdock ruled that the "Believe" campaign advertising was aimed broadly at all Baltimore residents, and not specifically at the Dawson family.

She also found that because the Dawson family members were not in the custody of law enforcement, there was no "special relationship" between the family and the city or state obligating government to protect them from violence.

Maryland's highest court unanimously upheld Murdock's decision, agreeing that neither the state nor the city was responsible.

"Appellants' acknowledgment that the Dawson family was preparing to move tends to show that they did not rely on any additional protection from being placed on the Special Attention List," Judge Dale R. Cathell wrote on behalf of the court. "The only affirmative act, if any at all existed, was the action of the police in suggesting that the Dawsons move from the subject location.

"They were not injured because they took any action to move. They were injured because they stayed," Cathell wrote.

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