Estela Espina wants it known that she is not a millionaire.
Although a Prince George’s County jury awarded her an $11.5 million judgment after deciding a police officer wrongfully shot her husband in 2008, she hasn’t received a dime.
“I want justice, but what can I do?” Espina asked.
Judges presiding over Maryland’s highest court will consider that question Monday. Specifically, the court will examine whether Prince George’s properly applied a state law allowing the county to pay only about $400,000 of the $11.5 million jury award Espina won in 2011 after suing the officer and the government. No payouts have been made while the case is under appeal.
The issue in Espina v. Jackson is whether a Maryland law passed in the 1980s can cap how much local governments owe plaintiffs who have successfully sued municipalities. Those carefully watching the case say the court’s decision could significantly affect how local governments are held accountable and how victims are compensated in cases involving police brutality and other civil rights violations.
“The jury that heard their case awarded them a significant remedy in recognition of the egregious harm they suffered and continue to suffer,” according to a brief the ACLU of Maryland filed in support of the Espinas. “But they have survived all this only to be told that the government has enacted a law to protect itself from paying what the jury said is owed for a civil rights violation of this magnitude.”
The case, which is before the Maryland Court of Appeals, stems from the fatal shooting of Manuel de Jesus Espina in August 2008. The 43-year-old construction worker was having a beer outside of his Langley Park apartment when Steven Jackson, an off-duty Prince George’s police officer moonlighting as a security guard, confronted him for drinking in public, according to court records. The confrontation quickly turned violent.
Three years later, during the civil trial, Jackson claimed he shot Espina because he was resisting arrest and attempted to take his gun. But witnesses said Espina was unarmed, never tried to take the weapon and was brutally attacked for no reason, according to court records.
A jury found that Jackson acted with malice rather than self-defense and that the county was responsible for Manuel Espina’s wrongful death. Later, the county claimed it was responsible for a fraction of the jury award based on the Local Government Tort Claims Act — about $200,000 for Manuel Espina’s death and another $200,000 for the wrongful arrest and assault of his son, who intervened in the confrontation.
Maryland legislators approved the act at a time when municipalities found themselves increasingly targeted in costly lawsuits. The law limits local government liability to $200,000 per individual claim and $500,000 in total claims stemming from the same case.
“Municipalities and counties throughout the nation are being held liable not only for the actions of its public officials and police officers, but for the spread of pollution from its landfill to adjacent properties or for a drowning at the city swimming pool,” according to testimony then-Lt. Gov. Joseph J. Curran (D) gave lawmakers while pushing for the liability cap. “Insurance companies, citing heavy losses and unanticipated multimillion dollar court judgments against local governments, have canceled policies or stopped writing new ones when the coverage expires.”
But Estela Espina’s attorneys argue in court filings that the law was meant to apply to common torts, such as if a police cruiser gets into a fender bender with a citizen — not to constitutional violations. The cap, her attorneys and others argue in court papers, diminishes the Maryland constitution’s guarantee to a “remedy” for those injured by the government.
Attorneys for Prince George’s and the Espina family declined to comment on the matter, citing the pending litigation.
But the Maryland Association of Justice, a professional organization representing 1,300 trial lawyers, says the economics of the cap don’t add up. After factoring in attorneys’ fees and the cost of paying experts and consultants to testify at trial, little, if anything, could be left for victims when the cap is enacted.
“If the fees and expenses necessary to pursue his claim completely exceed the cap, he is left with no reasonable expectation of recovery, effectively depriving him of any remedy at all,” according to the association’s brief.
Deborah Jeon, legal director for the ACLU of Maryland, said the cap also offers no incentive for local governments to take police misconduct seriously — especially if authorities do not criminally prosecute as in Jackson’s case.
“The fact that the government not only failed to take action and has all these years been mounting a defense for Officer Jackson shows the importance of civil litigation in holding the police accountable,” Jeon said.
The State’s Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office reviewed Jackson’s actions but declined to bring criminal charges, according to Prince George’s police spokeswoman Julie Parker. The county police department brought administrative charges against Jackson after an internal investigation, but a police trial board acquitted him. He remains a county police officer.
Those who support the cap say it is necessary to keep municipalities from going bankrupt from paying out huge judgments. The Local Government Insurance Trust, Baltimore City, and Harford and Montgomery counties have filed briefs supporting Prince George’s stance in the case.
In its brief, Baltimore City officials said that if the cap is lifted in constitutional claims, “local governments would again be unable to purchase insurance, either because the insurance companies would refuse to accept the significant risk or because the insurance premiums would skyrocket and be unaffordable. ”
Estela Espina, who works at a D.C. thrift store, knows the jury award won’t bring Manuel back. But she said it has been difficult to support herself and her grandchildren since her husband’s death.
“Since he passed away, I have suffered a lot,” Espina said. “He was a good man. He didn’t deserve what happened to him.”