A Maryland bill that would increase the maximum payouts to those who have successfully sued a local government heads to the state Senate on Thursday, making way for an update to a law that has remained unchanged for 27 years.
House Bill 113, as amended by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, would increase the top award local governments would pay to plaintiffs in civil suits, increasing the cap from $200,000 to $500,000 in individual claims and $500,000 to $1 million in total awards stemming from a single case.
Proponents of the bill say the current law is outdated and those who have been wronged by the government should receive a proper remedy, but opponents worry that lifting the caps will open the door to frivolous lawsuits that will strain municipal budgets.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee on Tuesday backed the bill, a different version of which passed the House by a vote of 93 to 45 in March.
A reconsideration of what is specifically known as the Local Government Tort Claims Act comes as Maryland’s highest court recently ruled that the $11.5 million jury award Estella Espina won after her husband was shot by a Prince George’s County police officer can be reduced to $400,000 — less than 4 percent of Espina’s original award.
In Espina vs. Jackson , Espina’s attorney’s argued that the Local Government Tort Claims Act was designed to limit jury awards in common torts — such as when public employees get into a car accident with civilians — and not constitutional claims that result in the loss of a life or violation of civil rights.
But the Maryland Court of Appeals decision issued March 30 says legislators who passed the bill intended the cap to apply to all civil suits. As a result, Prince George’s will pay Espina $200,000 for the wrongful death of her husband and another $200,000 for injuries her son suffered during the incident.
“The Court of Appeals determined that $200,000 was a reasonable remedy for the jury-determined police murder . . .” Espina’s attorney, Timothy F. Maloney, said in a statement. “The same county government that deprived Mr. Espina of his life . . . has now successfully deprived his family of a meaningful remedy for the loss of that life.”
Maloney and others argue the decision is a setback for cases involving police brutality and offers local governments little incentive to ensure that members of law enforcement are accountable for their actions.
Prince George’s County officials declined to comment on the final decision in Espina’s lawsuit other than to say they were “pleased” with how the Court of Appeals ruled.
Four days after the court issued its decision, Espina and her attorney testified in a Senate committee hearing in favor of House Bills 113 and 114. Similar to HB113, House Bill 114 would increase the liability cap when someone sues the state.
The case stems from the 2008 fatal shooting of Espina’s husband, Manuel de Jesus Espina, 43. Manuel Espina was having a beer outside of his Langley Park apartment when an off-duty Prince George’s police officer working as a security guard told him he couldn’t drink in public, according to court records. After a confrontation, Officer Steven Jackson shot Manuel Espina, who was unarmed.
In briefing papers to state legislators pitching the law in the 1980s, proponents of the bill said municipalities needed to protect themselves from going bankrupt in an “in an era when suits involving civil rights, environmental pollution, public safety and public employee performance abound.”
In pointing to “suits involving civil rights” as an example of what local governments were trying to protect themselves from, the judges determined that lawmakers didn’t want to set any constraints applying the liability cap.
“Indeed, the legislative history only furthers a conclusion that the General Assembly was aware that the LGTCA would be read as covering a broad range of civil actions and nonetheless declined to carve out any exceptions,” the court wrote in its decision issued last Monday.
The Maryland Association of Counties opposes the current bills. Les Knapp, with the organization that advocates on behalf of local governments, told lawmakers at a committee hearing that a fair cap is important to make sure governments can keep their budgets predictable while also confronting lawsuits filed by residents.
It’s a balancing act, Knapp said, to “provide some relief to private defendants as well as with letting us have reasonable budgets so that we can provide a wide range of services, high-risk services, that many private entities would not be able to provide.”
Espina said she remains saddened by her husband’s death and disappointed by the court’s decision.
“It’s not fair that an officer can just take someone’s spouse,” Espina said. “Everything goes forward just as if nothing happened.”