E-Alert Case Updates
Local Government Tort Claim Act damages cap applies to Constitutional claims.
Espina v. Prince George’s County, et al.
In a case of first impression, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals held that the cap on recoverable damages provided under the Local Government Tort Claims Act (“LGTCA”) applied to claims arising from violations of the State constitution.
On August 16, 2008, Espina and a friend were consuming alcoholic beverages outside their apartment complex, in violation of the law. Defendant Jackson, an off-duty Prince George’s County Police Officer who was providing security at the apartment complex, drove past the pair, in his marked police vehicle. After the second pass, Jackson exited his vehicle and headed towards Espina and his friend, who went inside the apartment. The exact details of the subsequent events were disputed at trial, but included a prolonged physical altercation that concluded when Defendant Jackson fired his service weapon at Espina, hitting him in the stomach and ultimately causing his death. Espina’s son, Manuel, was also arrested and charged with assaulting an officer.
Espina’s wife, son and estate brought suit against Defendant Jackson, and Prince George’s County (“County”), Jackson’s employer, in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County. At the conclusion of the (23) day trial and three (3) days of deliberation, the jury found that Jackson shot and killed Espina “in violation of Espina’s rights under Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, assaulted and battered Espina, wrongfully caused Espina’s death, and violated Manuel’s rights under Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights.” The jury awarded Espina’s family damages in the amount of $11,505,000. Prince George’s County filed a motion for reconsideration as to the verdict amount, and the court reduced the judgment to $405,000 against the County based on its interpretation of the LGTCA. The $405,000 award consisted of $200,000 for Espina’s constitutional claims, $200,000 for Manuel’s constitutional claims, and $5,000 for Manuel’s economic damages. The award against Defendant Jackson was not altered. All parties timely appealed.
While the Court of Special Appeals addressed a number of evidentiary and procedural issues in its opinion, it acknowledged that the most significant issue to be resolved on appeal was whether the LGTCA $200,000 damages cap applied to claims against the County arising from the violation of the state constitution. The Court applied the rules of statutory construction to the LGTCA provisions which provided that the cap applied to claims “for damages resulting from tortious acts or omissions” filed against local governments. MD. CODE ANN., CTS. & JUD. PROC. § 5-303(b)(1). The Court observed that the statute was silent as to the definition of “tortious acts or omissions,” and compared the case law and legislative history of the LGTCA to the Maryland Tort Claims Act. The Court held that the LGTCA should be construed broadly and the damages cap applied to all tortious actions including those that violated State constitutional claims. The Court further held that the application of the damages cap was not an abridgment of the Plaintiffs’ rights to remedy and justice “according to the Law of the Land” as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights. The Court affirmed the trial court’s reduction of the award against the County, but revised the award $400,000, consistent with its analysis that each claimant’s recovery was capped at $200,000 against the County.
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