The verdict of more than $37 million won Friday by the family of Korryn Gaines against Baltimore County police is one of the largest ever against law enforcement officers in Maryland.
But legal experts question whether they will actually see all that money. Maryland’s cap on local governments’ liabilities in such cases — and the propensity of judges to lower large awards on appeal — make it unlikely Gaines’ relatives and her young son Kodi will see the full amounts.
“While that’s a tremendous verdict, it’s certainly going to be subjected to challenges left and right,” said attorney Andrew G. Slutkin, who was not involved in the Gaines case, but is regularly involved in large civil claims cases.
“This will be litigated for years,” Slutkin said. “It’s going to be subjected to many motions in the trial court and the appellate courts as well.”
The 23-year-old Gaines was shot and killed in her Randallstown home in August 2016 after a six-hour standoff with police. Her son Kodi — who was 5 at the time — was struck by gunfire twice, in the face and the elbow.
A jury of six women found that the first shot from the police officer who fired at Gaines was not reasonable, and therefore violated her and her son’s civil rights under state and federal statutes. The jury awarded more than $32 million to Kodi in damages, $4.5 million for his sister, Karsyn, and smaller amounts to other family members.
Family attorney J. Wyndal Gordon said he was “filled with pride” that the jury made a decision to make the family whole.
However, the Local Government Tort Claims Act, which stems from a law enacted in the 1980s, generally limits a local government's payout in a lawsuit to $400,000 per plaintiff, or $800,000 for claims connected to a single incident.
Even so, Baltimore County could be on the hook for more, experts said, because the jury found the officer who shot and killed Gaines violated her and her son's federal constitutional rights, the penalties for which are not capped by state law.
A. Dwight Pettit, who often represents plaintiffs who sue police officers but wasn’t involved in this case, predicted an intense fight in the appellate courts.
“You’re starting at least at $800,000 and it could be more if the Constitutional claims survive,” he said.
“A lot of these jurisdictions have become emboldened by the cap,” Pettit said. “They don’t think they have real exposure. If these jurisdictions had to pay out these large amounts of money, these police brutality cases would go away very, very quickly.”
Pettit won the largest jury award in Maryland history against a law enforcement officer in 2004 — a $105 million civil verdict against former Baltimore Police Officer Rodney Price, who killed a man he believed was having an affair with his wife.
But a judge reduced that to about $27 million, and Maryland's Court of Special Appeals ruled in 2006 that Price was not "acting within the scope of his employment" and therefore Baltimore’s government was not responsible for paying anything at all.
Plaintiffs have had a hard time collecting other large awards against police.
In 2006, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury awarded $44 million to Albert Mosley because of a 2003 encounter with an officer inside a city jail cell that left Mosley a quadriplegic.
Former Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson said the city refused to pay the multimillion-dollar verdict in the case — arguing it wasn’t responsible for covering awards against police officers who were found to have acted with malice — and eventually the plaintiff's lawyers agreed to a $1 million payout.
Regarding the Gaines case, Nilson said: “Any award against the county would be subject to the state cap.”
“Where the numbers can get and stay very large is awards against the officers,” he said. “Then the question arises about whether the county will cover the verdict against the officer.”
Baltimore County government attorney Mike Field issued a statement after Friday’s verdict, saying the county is reviewing its options in the Gaines case, “including an appeal."
Even so, several legal observers marveled at the size of the award given Baltimore County juries’ reputation as more conservative and pro-police than those in Baltimore City.
“The last police brutality case they tried in Baltimore County, they had video of an officer kicking a man in the face,” said lawyer John B. Bratt. “The jury acquitted him and waited afterward to thank him for his service. As a general matter, I’ve always considered Baltimore County to be one of the most conservative venues in this state.”
Attorney Andy Alperstein, who was not involved with the case, called the award a “tremendously large judgment.”
“Traditionally country jurors are pretty conservative and pro-police, but in this case you have a sympathetic loss of life,” he said. “It can pull anybody’s heartstrings.”
He anticipated a flurry of post-trial motions by the county in the next couple of weeks to reduce the judgment.
If they did not succeed in post-trial motions, the county could then appeal to the Court of Appeals, Alperstein said.
“The county is far away from writing a $37 million check,” he said.
Lawyer Timothy F. Maloney recently challenged the constitutionality of Maryland’s damages cap.
But the state’s top court upheld the law in 2015, turning back his clients’ effort to collect $11.5 million awarded to the family of a Prince George's County man fatally shot by police.
The ruling meant Prince George's County had to pay only $400,000 in the case stemming from a 2008 shooting. Maloney said his clients were able to settle for a higher, undisclosed sum because they were still pursuing federal claims of constitutional violations.
“That’s the tragedy of the Tort Claims Act,” Maloney said. “It may limit the recovery to $400,000, which wouldn’t be justice in light of the jury’s verdict.”