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Limitation of Liability for Violation of Your Constitutional Rights: The Court of Appeals’ Decision in Espina v. Jackson

Maryland attorneys are eminently familiar with the State’s Local Government Tort Claims Act (LGTCA), which imposes a limitation on liability for the local government entity of $200,000 for each individual claim ($500,000 aggregate for claims that arise from the same occurrence). This limitation on liability operates to strictly limit damages recoverable from the local government entity regardless of the extent of harm experienced by the plaintiff. And now, with today’s Court of Appeals’ decision in Espina v. Jackson (No. 35, Sept. Term 2014), that damages cap applies even in the face of egregious constitutional violations because such “constitutional torts” fall within the LGTCA’s “tortious acts or omissions” terminology.

Espina involved survival and wrongful death actions filed against Prince George’s County and its police officer employee, Steven Jackson. Espina’s surviving spouse and son sued PG County and Officer Jackson, alleging assault and battery, wrongful death, and violations of Espina’s and the son’s constitutional rights. Following 3 days of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiffs and awarded compensatory damages totaling $11,505,000. No punitive damages were awarded.

However, upon considering the LGTCA damages cap, the trial court reduced the damages award entered against the County to $405,000. The County appealed and the Court of Special Appeals further reduced the damages award to $400,000. Now, the Court of Appeals has affirmed this ruling.

The court analyzed the plain language of the statute and examined the legislative history, finding support therein for its decision. Ultimately, the court determined that it was proper (1) to aggregate all of the survivorship and wrongful death claims and award $200,000 on those claims because the latter were derivative of the estate’s constitutional claims and (2) award $200,000 for the son’s individual constitutional claim, which was separate and not derivative.

To learn more about the Espina decision, or how STSW can help you, please contact Sima Fried at (410) 385-2225 or at sfried@mdattorney.com.

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