ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate debated a bill Thursday that would allow state judges to award more money to people who sue a Maryland county or city for damages.
A tort, a civil claim, can be brought against the government for anything from a fall on public property to a police-involved shooting; the damages awarded are intended to help victims of government action or omission recover.
Under current law, though, a judge cannot grant more than $200,000 in damages for a tort claim against a local government, with a maximum of $500,000 for any number of claims stemming from a single incident.
With an eye on the more serious torts, a state Senate committee proposed increasing the limits to double or more: $500,000 per claim or $1 million per incident. But critics point out that when the government pays tort damages, it’s taxpayers who foot the bill.
Senator Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, presented the bill to the Senate chamber Thursday on behalf of his Judicial Proceedings Committee, which had reviewed the bill favorably with amendments after it passed through the House of Delegates.
Zirkin cited the 2014 case of Estela Espina and her son Manuel de Jesus Espina-Jacome. The Maryland Court of Appeals awarded them the maximum damages of $400,000 for two claims after Prince George’s County police officer Steven Jackson fatally shot Manuel Espina, Estela’s husband. A jury had given a $11.5 million verdict in the tort case.
In extreme situations like Espina’s, Zirkin said, “handing (damages) down to 200 grand is adding insult to injury.”
The Maryland Association of Counties and the Maryland Municipal League, which represent counties and cities, respectively, have objected to an increase in their members’ liability.
The Maryland Association of Counties wouldn’t object to a more modest increase, said Leslie Knapp Jr., the county association’s legal and policy counsel. He was referring to the bill, which is sponsored by Delegate Frank Conaway Jr., D-Baltimore, as it had emerged from the House of Delegates.
The House had settled on $300,000 per claim or $600,000 total. But senators Thursday amended the bill by a vote of 28-19 to call for higher limits.
The Senate amendments would also extend the time within which a person must give notice of his or her claim, from 180 days after the injury to a year.
The chamber is set to vote on the amended bill Friday.
“It is a balancing act” to award an appropriate amount in damages, Knapp said, and the lesser increase would be more appropriate given the “broad range of services” that can result in torts.
Senator Robert Cassilly, R-Harford, argued that greater government liability could cause cities or counties to scale back their services to avoid the risk of torts.
Local governments are responsible for parks, roads and other public places, Cassilly said, and they cannot keep an eye on everyone, everywhere to prevent torts from happening in the first place. By increasing potential damages, “we basically undermine the public service,” he said.
The state Local Government Insurance Trust, which includes 17 counties and 142 municipalities, disbursed more than $5.5 million in liability claims in fiscal 2014, according to the bill’s fiscal note. Since 1989, the trust has paid the maximum amount or more for 25 claims.
Zirkin countered that the liability limits have not been raised since they took effect in 1987, when a dollar was more than twice as valuable as it is today. An award of 200,000 2015 dollars would be worth about $96,800 back then, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics’ inflation calculator.
Senator Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, summed up the dilemma: “We’re trying to look out for our constituents both as taxpayers and potential victims” of governments.
“The answer is somewhere in the middle.”