Rodriguez v. State
August 5, 2020
Philip E. Parker, Jr., was an inmate murdered by another inmate in 2005. His parents, the Plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit individually and on behalf of their deceased son against the State of Maryland, various State officials whom Plaintiffs alleged were responsible for their son’s murder, and five correctional officers who were transporting the inmates when the murder occurred. After a twelve day trial, the jury found in favor of Plaintiffs. However, the grant of post-trial motions resulted in the entry of judgment against the State only. The trial court struck the jury’s finding of gross negligence against one of the correctional officers, Sergeant Cooper, and entered judgment in favor of all individual defendants pursuant to the common law doctrine of public official immunity and the statutory immunity for State personnel under the Maryland Tort Claims Act (“MTCA”).
On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals held that the trial court erred in striking the jury’s finding of gross negligence against Sgt. Cooper. The Court concluded there was sufficient evidence to support the jury’s verdict of gross negligence, namely that the attack occurred on a bus just over seven feet from where Sgt. Cooper was sitting.
This is significant because the reinstatement of the finding of gross negligence affects Sgt. Cooper’s eligibility for immunity. Generally, the MTCA provides that State personnel are immunized for their tortious conduct committed within the scope of their public duties, unless that conduct was committed with malice or gross negligence. As such, the Court of Appeals determined that pursuant to the MTCA, Sgt. Cooper was not entitled to statutory immunity for his actions. Additionally, because Sgt. Cooper’s acts were made with gross negligence, the sovereign immunity of the State was not waived.
Under the common law doctrine of public official immunity, public officials, such as Sgt. Cooper, are immunized for their tortious conduct which occurred in the course of the official’s performance of discretionary acts within the scope of his employment. The Court ultimately decided Sgt. Cooper’s immunity was destroyed because there was a special relationship between Sgt. Cooper and the decedent, and Sgt. Cooper and the inmate responsible for the decedent’s death, that imposed a duty on Sgt. Cooper to protect the decedent.
With respect to the judgment against the State, the Court of Appeals was asked to consider the limited recovery against the State under the MTCA. The MTCA provides that the liability of the State is limited to $200,000 to a “single claimant for injuries arising from a single incident or occurrence.” The trial court found there were three separate claimants – the decedent’s mother and father, and his estate – and each were entitled to $200,000. Upon review of the legislative history of the MTCA, case law, and Maryland regulations, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in finding there were three claimants. Rather Plaintiffs were entitled to collect a total of no more than $200,000 under the MTCA from the State.