ANNAPOLIS – The state of Maryland and the Maryland National Guard cannot be held liable in the 1997 death of an Army major who was run over by a truck driven by two guardsmen during training exercises, Maryland’s highest court ruled Thursday.
The state Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a 1999 Montgomery County Circuit Court decision in a $6 million lawsuit brought by Maj. Andrew Burris’ widow against the state and the Guard.
The original case, which could have been brought in any county circuit court in Maryland, was brought in Montgomery County because it’s convenient to Fairfax County, Va., where Timothy Hyland, an attorney for the widow, Karen Burris, practices.
As the only Maryland National Guard case to appear before the state Court of Appeals in recent history, the decision sets an important precedent, said Lt. Col. Stephen M. Doyle, deputy staff judge advocate for the Guard.
“This will allow them to perform their critical state and federal missions without fear that the missions will be compromised through litigation,” said Doyle, who argued the case before the Court of Appeals.
While evaluating training exercises for the Maryland and Florida guards at Florida’s Camp Blanding on June 13, 1997, Burris – a Gulf War veteran and member of the 82nd Airborne Division – was run over by a two-and-a-half ton truck operated by Maryland Guard members Submas Singh and Gregory Headly. Burris was hit while lying in the middle of the road during the night exercises. The truck, as part of the exercises, did not have its headlights on.
Burris received serious injuries, and, “a dreadful series of missteps after the accident . . . significantly delayed his evacuation to receive treatment,” the Court of Appeals opinion said. He died two hours after the accident.
“It’s a tragedy for this widow, but the decision was the legal and correct thing to do,” said Maryland Assistant Attorney General Laura McWeeney.
Karen Burris alleged that the Maryland National Guard, and thus the state, was negligent because the drivers were not using night vision goggles and were speeding when they hit her husband, and because proper medical treatment was not rendered immediately after her husband was hit.
The state successfully argued it could not be held responsible for the guard’s actions because its members were not “state personnel” under the Maryland Tort Claims Act. Under the act, only those persons paid by the state are considered state personnel. The Guard has ties to both the state and federal governments, and during the training exercises with the Army in Florida the federal government paid the guardsmen.
The state also successfully argued that under the Maryland and federal constitutions only the executive and legislative branches can make judgments about military decisions. Thus, the judicial branch could not legally determine if the Guard acted negligently.
The court did not address the Montgomery County Circuit Court’s determination that the federal Feres Doctrine, which protects the armed services from lawsuits by soldiers killed or injured during duty, freed the state and the Guard from liability.
Hyland said his client has not decided if she will appeal the case in federal court.