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Wrongful Death and Survival Actions Considered One “Claim” for Purposes of Local Government Tort Claims Act

Leake v. Johnson
(Md. Ct. Spec. App. March 30, 2012)

by Gregory L. Arbogast, Associate
Semmes, Bowen & Semmes (www.semmes.com)

In Leake v. Johnson, the Maryland Court of Appeals capped the total award for all Plaintiffs at $200,000, pursuant to the Local Government Tort Claims Act MD. CODE ANN., CTS. & JUD. PROC. § 5-303 (“LGTCA”), even though Plaintiffs asserted separate wrongful death and survival claims. The Court held that since wrongful death and survival claims are derivative of the same injury, they are considered one “claim” under the LGTCA. The LGTCA caps individual “claims” at $200,000.

Leake arose out of the alleged negligence of the Baltimore City Police Department (“BCPD”). BCPD arrested Dondi Johnson, Sr. for public urination. The BCPD handcuffed Mr. Johnson and placed him in the back of a police wagon. Notably, when the BCPD placed Mr. Johnson in the back of the police wagon, they did not buckle his seatbelt. Accounts of the drive between the scene and the police station differ, but Plaintiffs alleged that the BCPD gave Mr. Johnson a “rough ride,” which is a police technique to drive in an unsafe manner to shake up a suspect. During the ride, Mr. Johnson struck his head, which caused him to become a quadriplegic and to eventually pass away.

Plaintiffs, the Estate of Mr. Johnson and his survivors, filed a wrongful death and a survival action against the BCPD and the individual police officers involved in the arrest. A jury found for Plaintiffs and awarded damages of over seven (7) million dollars. The police officers requested that the trial court reduce the award in accordance with the LGTCA. The Court reduced the award to $416,500.

In revising the jury award, the trial court relied on the LGTCA, which caps liability at $200,000 per claim and at $500,000 per occurrence. The trial court found that the wrongful death and survival actions were separate claims, but all arose out of one occurrence. Therefore, under the LGTCA, the officers’ total liability was capped at $500,000. The trial court did not explain its reasoning for entering a judgment of $416,500, instead of $500,000, but the Court of Special Appeals believed that the trial court intended to enter a judgment of $500,000, and there was merely a clerical error. The parties cross-appealed with respect to the judgment.

The Court of Special Appeals addressed whether a wrongful death action and a survival action constituted a single “claim” within the meaning of the LGTCA. If that is the case, then the judgment should have been capped at $200,000, instead of $500,000. To determine whether a wrongful death action and a survival action were a single claim, the Court of Special Appeals looked to insurance coverage law for guidance. The Court found that where separate actions are derivative of the same injury, they are a single claim. On the other hand, where there are separate injuries, there are separate claims. The Court gave an example of separate injuries as where there are two (2) different plaintiffs who both received injuries from the same occurrence. The Court of Special Appeals found that wrongful death and survival actions are both derivative of the same injury. Therefore, they are a single claim, and Plaintiffs’ damages should have been capped at $200,000.


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