An article in Saturday's Washington Post incorrectly identified the author of a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling that Prince George's County can be held liable in a police brutality suit. The author was Associate Judge Harry A. Cole.
The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that the Prince George's County government can be held liable in a police brutality suit, along with the individual officers involved. The court overturned earlier decisions by the state's intermediate Court of Special Appeals, and the county's Circuit Court.
The case arose when plaintiffs in a pending civil suit against two police officers also named the county as a defendant. While not conceding that the officers had acted improperly, attorneys for the county argued that the county could not be held responsible for an officer's "malicious and intentional acts . . . outside the scope of his employment."
The civil suit was filed on behalf of Ronald Melvin Cox, who contended he was bitten by a police dog and beaten by officers who were detaining him as a break-in suspect in Calverton in 1979. Cox, now 19 and living in Silver Spring, was not charged.
The suit, seeking more than $1 million in damages, named police officers John Richley Williams Jr. and Mahlron Curran. Curran is now president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police. The trial was scheduled to begin in Prince George's Circuit Court this month, but attorneys involved in the case expect it to be delayed.
Associate Judge James F. Couch Jr., writing for the appeals court, said that even if the police action was not authorized, the county could be liable if it "was not unexpectable in view of the duties of the servant." He also cited the county's charter, which sets $250,000 limit on its own liability, thereby acknowledging that liability could exist.
It was not known yesterday how many brutality suits are pending against county police. One attorney, who asked not to be named because he is handling a number of suits against police officers, said yesterday that while attorneys are "not really pleased" with the appeals court decision, it will make little practical difference.
"People will think they can get a larger judgment," he said, but because the county normally represents the officers and pays civil damages decided against them, yesterday's decision "won't affect the ante very much."
Furthermore, he said, the county's civil liability is limited to $250,000, while no limit has been set for damages against individual officers