A Maryland circuit judge has found Charles County and state officials "clearly liable" in the December 1996 death of a volunteer rescue worker and accused them of needlessly dragging out a civil damages suit at the expense of the dead woman's family.

"I think the defendants in this case would be loath to go before the public that they represent and explain the harrowing mess that they have made of this litigation, in which liability on behalf of the defendants is clear," Prince George's County Circuit Court Judge Sherrie L. Krauser said during an Aug. 13 hearing. Transcripts of the proceedings were made available this week.

"I think the nitpicking, the harassment, the . . . added cost to the plaintiffs of this prolonged litigation is outrageous," Krauser said.

Krauser ruled that the off-duty sheriff's deputy, Jody Powell, acted with "reckless disregard" of traffic laws and the policies of her own agency, and caused the death of Tiffani C. Carrington, of Pomfret. The judge found that Powell had received "negligent supervision and training" because Powell testified in a deposition that she had not read the sheriff's manual, which spells out requirements that deputies responding to a call stop at red lights before proceeding into an intersection.

Krauser awarded Carrington's parents and estate $120,000 in damages--the maximum state law allows--plus court costs.

Despite Krauser's strongly worded rebuke, the lawyer representing the sheriff's department, county and the state of Maryland, Paul T. Cuzmanes, has filed notice that the defendants plan to appeal the ruling. Cuzmanes declined to comment Wednesday night. Charles County sheriff's officials declined to comment yesterday. Sheriff's officials also said that Powell could not be interviewed.

Powell, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing by local prosecutors but disciplined by the sheriff's office, now works as a detective in the sheriff's criminal investigation section, police said. She spent more than two years on probation and was fined an undisclosed sum.

In her first interview since Krauser's ruling, Carrington's mother, Deborah Carrington, 46, a special agent with the Department of Defense, decried the county's decision to press forward with an appeal.

"I have very little respect for people who don't want to own up for their actions," Carrington said. She said she would continue to speak out against the sheriff's department's actions in the hopes that officials would ultimately improve training for deputies and create new regulations governing police behavior in high-speed chases.

Sheriff Frederick E. Davis (R) would not discuss the case or deputy training.

Carrington, a University of Maryland student who aspired to be a helicopter paramedic, had left the Bryans Road fire station in the early morning hours of Dec. 21, 1996, on a doughnut run for her fellow firefighters. She was nearly through the intersection when Powell broadsided Carrington's car with her squad car, flipping the Nissan 280 and propelling it sideways 142 feet.

Paramedics and emergency personnel from Carrington's own fire station were called to the scene just yards away, and worked unsuccessfully to save her life.

According to the lawsuit, Powell, who was off-duty, was traveling at speeds averaging 104 miles an hour to join other deputies pursuing a driver eluding police after a routine traffic stop. Powell was the fifth police car to join the chase and the farthest away, covering 3.6 miles in two minutes, according to the suit.

After deputies realized they were chasing a traffic offender, Powell's supervisor radioed her to break off her pursuit. Powell later testified she did not hear her supervisor's radio broadcast.

A friend of Carrington's who was in the car was also injured in the crash. Powell was not seriously hurt.

An accident reconstruction team from the Maryland State Police determined that Carrington was at fault in the accident and that she had failed to yield the right of way to the emergency vehicle.

Carrington's mother believes otherwise. She said her daughter's experience as a rescue squad worker gave her a healthy respect for emergency vehicles. She believes that her daughter was simply struck by an officer traveling too fast who failed to stop at an intersection.

"This whole fight is about Tiffani's integrity," Carrington said. "There's no way she would have gone through that intersection if she had seen lights or heard sirens. I won't stop here, win or lose on appeal. I'm not finished."

Lawyers for the defendants have not contested the plaintiff's version of events, except to stress the police report finding Carrington at fault.

CAPTION: Tiffani C. Carrington's car was hit by a Charles County sheriff's deputy.