The Maryland Court of Appeals decided Espina v. Prince George’s County last week. The opinion is not a good one if you care about justice.
I have written here two times how awful governmental immunities are. But I think the topic is inexhaustible, like Doris Kearns Goodwin digging even deeper into Lincoln’s life. The unfairness of protecting government when they hurt someone is just plain wrong. In 2014, they just make little sense. Virtually everyone agrees they lead to grave injustice. Yet no one really cares.
The Maryland courts underscore their unwillingness at least to bend the law towards justice. Espina is one of those classic police officer run amok cases. The fact pattern is one of the most annoying version, too: the off-duty police officer was working private security, and beats the heck out of and then shoots and kills an undocumented immigrant. And he did it, killing the man out of pure malice. At least, that is how the jury saw it and they awarded $11 million.
This was a regular tort claim and a constitutional tort. I don’t handle constitutional torts. But I’ve always understood that constitutional torts are different. (One question the court left unanswered, because it didn’t have to, is whether Maryland’s cap on damages applies to Constitutional torts.)
The Court of Special Appeals, in an opinion written by Judge Stuart R. Burger, used some good logic to argue that a tort is a tort. I don’t disagree with the logic although, honestly; I did not dig that deeply into it. I just think we need to completely change the rules of the game when suing governmental entities.
The Local Government Tort Act puts a $200,000 cap on damages (with a cap of $500,000). So there was also a question whether there were two different claims or one. Plaintiffs argued that the assault and shooting were a separate occurrence from the constitutional violations, so there should be two caps. P.G. County thought it should be just a $200,000 limit because the claims are based upon the same set of facts. The verdicts, according to the County, should have been reduced to $200,000.
The court found that there were two caps because the jury’s finding that Manuel’s constitutional rights were violated could be reconciled with a finding that there was no assault. So the constitutional claim was separate and not derivative of the tort claim.