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Court of Appeals Finds Gross Negligence Exception to Public Official Immunity Under Maryland Tort Claims Act

Larry Cooper v. Melissa Rodriguez
No. 87 (Court of Appeals of Maryland, July 27, 2015)

by Caroline E. Willsey, Summer Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

Available at: http://www.mdcourts.gov/opinions/coa/2015/87a14.pdf

In Larry Cooper v. Melissa Rodriguez, No. 87, (Court of Appeals of Maryland, July 24, 2015), the Court of Appeals of Maryland considered two issues: 1) whether the Appellant, a correctional officer, who was in charge of a prison transport bus when an inmate was murdered was grossly negligent; and 2) whether a grossly negligent officer was entitled to common law public official immunity under the Maryland Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”), Md. Code Ann., State Gov’t § 12-101 to 12-110.

In February 2005, one inmate murdered another in plain sight of other inmates and correctional officers, while the two (2) were traveling together on a prison transport bus with thirty-four (34) other inmates and five (5) correctional officers. The victim’s parents filed a lawsuit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County against the State of Maryland, the Secretary of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services (“DPSCS”), the Commissioner of the Division of Correction, the Warden of the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center, and the five (5) individual officers who staffed the prison transport bus during the incident, including Larry Cooper.

The jury returned a verdict against Cooper, finding that his gross negligence was the proximate cause of the victim’s death. Cooper filed a motion, seeking judgment notwithstanding the verdict as to the jury’s finding that he had been grossly negligent. The circuit court granted the motion by: (1) striking the jury’s finding of gross negligence as to Cooper and (2) determining that Cooper was immune from liability under both common law public official immunity and the MTCA. The Court of Special Appeals held that the circuit court erred in striking the jury’s finding and in concluding that Cooper was immune from liability. Cooper filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, which the Court of Appeals granted.

Under common law, the State enjoys sovereign immunity and is thus protected from suit for both ordinary torts and State constitutional torts. The State has partially waived this immunity through the MTCA. Concerning the immunity of state personnel and public officials, the MTCA waives immunity for tortious actions that are “made with malice or gross negligence.” A state employee acting in the scope of his or her employment, without malice or gross negligence, is immune from suit. Whether gross negligence exists necessarily depends on the facts and circumstances involved in each case.

The Court of Appeals held that the circuit court erred in striking the jury’s finding that Cooper was grossly negligent. The Court observed that the trial record was replete with evidence sufficient to support the conclusion that Cooper, as the Officer in Charge, failed to fulfill his duty to ensure the victim’s safety and acted with reckless disregard for the victim’s life, pointing specifically to Cooper’s testimony that he did not see or hear the attack, which occurred approximately seven (7) feet away from him and that he was unaware of several policies he was required to follow to ensure the inmate’s safety.

Common law public official immunity applies to public officials (as opposed to mere employees) who perform negligent acts during the course of their discretionary (as opposed to ministerial) duties. Discretionary duties refer to those that an official is entrusted to perform according to the dictates of his or her own judgment and conscience, uncontrolled by rules or regulations imposed by others. The Court concluded that Cooper was clearly a public official (as all corrections officers are) performing a ministerial duty. The next question for the Court to decide was whether the “special relationship exception” or the “gross negligence exception” prevented the application of common law public official immunity as to Cooper.

The Court concluded that the “special relationship exception” did not prevent the application of common law public official immunity as to Cooper. The “special relationship exception,” rather than being a limitation on common law public official immunity, is a limitation on the public duty doctrine. Therefore, the existence of a “special relationship” does not prevent the application of common law public official immunity.

Whether gross negligence constituted an exception to common law public official immunity was a matter of first impression before the Court of Appeals. The Court of Special Appeals, however, had previously implied that under common law immunity, public officials are entitled to qualified immunity from negligence claims, so long as those officials acted without malice or gross negligence. This common law immunity pertains only to the public official’s individual liability, not to the State’s liability for that public official, which is governed by the MTCA. The Court of Appeals considered those implications to be based on Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, which guarantees a remedy for injury to a person or property for a public official’s gross negligence.

The Court explicitly carved out a new exception to common law public official immunity for a public official’s acts of gross negligence. The Court reasoned that to hold otherwise would effectively leave a void in liability, leaving plaintiffs without a remedy. Prior to the Court’s ruling, common law public official immunity would have alleviated any liability a State official incurred for his or her grossly negligent acts under the MTCA.

The Court emphasized that its holding was consistent with the purpose of the MTCA, reiterating that common law public official immunity and immunity under the MTCA are distinct principles. The MTCA was enacted in 1984 for the purpose of creating a remedy for individuals injured by tortious conduct attributable to the State. Thus, where the MTCA applies, either the State or a State official (individually) is liable for the State official’s tortious conduct, depending on the exact nature of the tortious conduct. After the Court’s holding, the State will now be liable for a State official’s acts of malice, but the State official will be individually liable for his or her acts of gross negligence.


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