ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Legal Newsline) – Maryland's top court has upheld rulings that the damages awarded to the family of a man who was killed on a prison transport bus should be capped.
In an opinion filed April 12, the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld decisions by the Baltimore City Circuit Court and Court of Special Appeals to cap the amount awarded to the plaintiffs for the alleged negligence by the corrections officer.
“The representation of a state employee who was found to be grossly negligent by the jury at the trial of this case did not effect a waiver of the state’s sovereign immunity,” Judge Robert McDonald noted in the appellate order.
McDonald said that the plaintiffs made “creative arguments” to sidestep the cap on noneconomic damages and sovereign immunity doctrine established by Maryland statutes.
In 2005, Philip Parker Jr. was murdered by another inmate while traveling on a bus to the maximum-security prison in Maryland, the opinion states. Parker’s parents, Melissa Rodriguez and Philip Parker Sr., sued the state and the correctional officers who were present on the bus in the Baltimore City court.
The jury found that Sgt. Larry Cooper, who was the officer in charge, was grossly negligent, and the court ordered judgment against the State.
After various post-trial and appellate hearings, the circuit court did not include the state in the judgment against Cooper because the “the waiver of the state’s sovereign immunity in the (Maryland Tort Claims Act) does not extend to actions or omissions that are grossly negligent.”
The circuit court ruling stated that the damages award was limited by the cap set by Maryland law for lawsuits against the state or any public official. The cap for negligence awards against the state is $200,000, and the jury awarded $18.5 million to the family for noneconomic damages to the estate, funeral expenses and noneconomic damages to Parker’s father and Parker’s mother.
Rodriguez and Parker Sr. filed an appeal against the circuit court ruling that lowered the amount awarded on the judgment against Cooper and the denial to hold the state liable for the judgment.
“Petitioners argue that the cap on noneconomic damages in CJ §11-108 should not be applied to judgments against the state or its employees. Again, the plain language of the statute does not state such an exclusion,” McDonald stated.
The parents also claimed that because state-provided attorneys represented both Cooper and the State, the attorneys “labored under a conflict,” and the plaintiffs claim that the "remedy for that conflict, according to petitioners, would be for the Circuit Court to include the State in the judgment against Sgt. Cooper.”
McDonald stated, “There was no 'incentive' for the attorneys representing Sgt. Cooper to 'shift' liability from the state to him… Even if they somehow had standing to raise the question of a conflict in the representation of an adverse party, they have not identified how they were harmed by the alleged conflict… it is a leap beyond logic to say that the remedy for such a claim would be to enter judgment in favor of a third party who is adverse to both Sgt. Cooper and the state.”