Prince George's County taxpayers are liable for $2.2 million awarded in a police brutality lawsuit because county officials waited too long to inform the county's liability insurer, according to a decision by the Court of Special Appeals.
In a 20-page decision published last month, the appellate court affirmed a ruling by a Circuit Court judge that the county failed to provide the required notice of the claim and lawsuit filed by Freddie McCollum Jr., a Temple Hills man who was beaten by county police in June 1997.
Suspected of a traffic violation, McCollum was followed home by police and then beaten so badly that he lost his right eye and partial use of his left hand. County police used their batons to beat McCollum in the face and ribs, and a police dog bit his left hand. McCollum, 58, has undergone 13 operations on his face and seven on his hand.
During a federal civil trial in Baltimore, then-Associate County Attorney Laura J. Gwinn said McCollum was injured when he and the officers who were trying to arrest him fell from McCollum's attic. Only McCollum was injured, Gwinn said.
The jury rejected that argument. In April 2000, McCollum was awarded $4.1 million, a record in a Prince George's police brutality case.
U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake reduced the award to $1.6 million. McCollum and his lawyers accepted it, but county lawyers appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, saying the award should have been reduced further. The court upheld the $1.6 million award.
The appeal cost the county an additional $600,000 in interest and attorney's fees.
The county relied on self-insurance for awards up to $1 million and had excess coverage through the Local Government Insurance Trust, according to court papers.
Under the terms of the policy, county officials were required to notify the trust in writing of any claim or lawsuit, according to the appellate court's opinion. The county was also required to immediately report to the trust any civil jury awards.
The county never notified the trust about the McCollum lawsuit, although it did inform the insurance provider about the jury award, the appellate opinion said.
After the trust denied the county's request for coverage of the claim, county officials filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court alleging breach of contract. The county's lawsuit asserted that the trust had a duty to reimburse the county for any amount in excess of $1 million to satisfy the McCollum judgment as well as costs for interest and attorney fees.
The judge denied the county's claims, citing the failure to provide the required notice. The Court of Special Appeals agreed with the judge.
The county argued that the notice was not necessary because county attorneys, not the trust, provided a defense to the McCollum lawsuit. But the appellate court found that the trust was harmed by the lack of notification because McCollum was seeking more than $20 million and "there was a significant possibility that the verdict in favor of McCollum might exceed $1 million, in which even the trust would be required to provide excess coverage."
If it had been notified of the lawsuit, the trust could have conducted an investigation, weighed in on the defense strategy or recommended a settlement, the appellate court wrote.
John E. Smathers, McCollum's attorney, said that county attorneys made it clear they were not going to settle the case.
"They said they would never offer me a penny," Smathers said. "That made the decision to go to trial easy."
Jim Keary, a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson, said county officials declined to comment because the McCollum lawsuit and the county's appeal of the jury award occurred before Johnson assumed his post in 2002.