ANNAPOLIS – Matthew and Dominic Geckle were just defending the family cement business in Owings Mill when they fatally shot an intruder in March 2001, the third night in a row that someone had broken in.
But the family of the victim, Jonathan Steinbach, is arguing in court that the man’s 4-year-old child was traumatized by his father’s death, caused when the businessmen entrapped him in violation of police warnings. The business owners, they argue, should pay $13 million in compensation.
Three members of the Maryland House of Delegates say incidents like the Geckles’ violent actions should be exempt from civil liability and they’re hopeful that their third attempt to make that so is successful.
The bill, HB 1462, sponsored by Delegates Carmen Amedori, Donald Dwyer and Anthony J. O’Donnell, was heard Wednesday in the Judiciary Committee. It says that a person who kills or injures another at their own business as a result of fear for their own life is not “civilly liable” for the use of force in self-defense or defense of others.
Current law says a person has a duty to avoid danger and to attempt to retreat when attacked. The use of deadly force has not been permitted in defense of property alone.
“I think it’s a good bill,” said Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel, the day after the hearing. “I think it’s unjust. In fact, it’s tremendously unfair, to hold victims (of crime) liable when they have only defended themselves and their property.”
A Baltimore County grand jury decided against indicting the brothers a month after the act. But Steinbach’s estate filed a wrongful death suit in February seeking $13 million and the family business.
The bill would be retroactive to January 2001.
“We’ve become a very litigious society,” said O’Donnell, R-Calvert. “It’s amazing these days, even the criminals sue their victims.”
Amedori, R-Carroll, said this is at least the third attempt to push through similar legislation since 2001, when House and Senate bills languished in committee.
The bill’s retroactivity concerns the Judicial Conference, which includes all Maryland judges. The conference also expressed reservations about the bill’s presumption extending to all “acts” both civil and criminal.
Richard Montgomery, a lobbyist representing the Maryland Bar Association, said the organization took no position on the issue.
The Judiciary Committee has yet to vote on the bill, but Amedori hopes to get it past the committee and moved to the House floor soon.
Based on his knowledge of the Judiciary Committee, Dwyer said he’s expecting a split vote.
“Burglary,” said Amedori, “is a risky business for a perpetrator.”
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