Family in Police Killing Challenges Maryland’s Cap on Damages
By Jonathan Portner, Portner & Shure, P.A., Columbia, MD.
Manuel Espina was shot by a Prince George’s County, MD, police officer in 2008 and his family sued the county because the officer was a local government employee. Maryland has a law from the 1980s that limits the amount of money people can receive when suing a local government employee to $200,000 per plaintiff or $500,000 for claims connected to a single incident. The Espina family is asking Maryland’s highest court to strike down the law because their damage award of $11.5 million was cut down to $400,000.
The Prince George's County lawsuit stems from an August 2008 incident in which county Officer Steven Jackson noticed Espina drinking a beer with a friend outside Espina's Langley Park apartment, as his wife and son prepared for his birthday party. A struggle ensued, the officer said, and both men tumbled down a flight of stairs.
In Jackson's account, four or five other men joined the fight, and he drew his service weapon and ordered them to back away. Jackson said he shot Espina after the man grabbed his baton. The jury found that Jackson acted with malice.
Other localities in Maryland, not surprisingly, have taken the side of Prince George’s County, arguing that “ruling in favor of the family could force local governments to pay out millions more when officers are sued for civil rights violations.”
Combatting police brutality
The family’s attorneys and many civil rights groups believe that having a cap on damages will never deter local governments from combatting police brutality. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Public Justice Center, and the Caucus of African American Leaders all filed briefs supporting the Espina family. They believe “that larger penalties are necessary to ensure justice in police brutality cases” and “the cap doesn’t deter officers from repeated misconduct—especially if they escape criminal charges over the accusations.” The police officer involved here was not prosecuted in the killing and a police trial board acquitted him of administrative charges.
In Baltimore, the cap has saved taxpayers millions of dollars because since 2011, there have been 102 civil suits alleging police brutality and other misconduct, and yet $5.7 million has still been paid out. Baltimore City, for example, has argued that “the cap is needed to protect budgets and predict exposure for insurance purposes.”
So while local governments are worrying about their budgets, families of victims of police brutality or other misconduct are limited to a few hundred thousand dollars in damages for their loss, even when juries return multi-million dollar damage awards. The cap has been challenged and upheld numerous times. It will certainly be interesting to see if the Maryland Court of Appeals holds its ground and upholds the cap, or if this case is ripe for overturning it.