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Espina v. Jackson

Court of Appeals of Maryland, Prince George's

March 30, 2015

ESTELA ESPINA, et al.,
v.
STEVEN JACKSON, et al.

Argued: January 12, 2014

Circuit Court for Prince George’s County Case No. CAL0923501

Barbera, C.J. Harrell Greene Adkins McDonald Watts McAuliffe, John (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.

OPINION

Greene, J.

At issue in the present case is the extent to which the General Assembly intended, and was within its authority, to limit a local government's financial liability under the Local Government Tort Claims Act ("LGTCA"), Md. Code (1974, 2013 Repl. Vol., 2014 Supp.), § 5-301 et seq. of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJP"), for damages resulting from violations of the state constitution. This case arises out of the fatal shooting of Manuel Espina ("Espina") by Prince George's County (the "County") police officer Steven Jackson ("Jackson"). Petitioners, Espina's estate, Estela Concepcion Jacome–Espina, Espina's surviving spouse ("Estela"), and Manuel de Jesus Espina–Jacome, [1] Espina's son ("Manuel"), filed against Jackson and the County (collectively, "Respondents") survival and wrongful death actions arising out of Espina's death, as well as a claim on behalf of Manuel for a violation of his constitutional rights arising out of his treatment and arrest following the fatal shooting of Espina. After a twenty-three day trial, Petitioners obtained a jury verdict in the amount of $11, 505, 000, which was reduced to a judgment and entered against both Jackson and the County. Our decision focuses not on the grim context, but rather on the effect of the LGTCA on the County's liability for a verdict rendered against its police officer for violations of the state constitution. In deciding this case, we must not succumb to the allure of bad facts for their tendency to create bad law. We recognize the importance our decision has not only on the victim's ability to receive compensation, but also on the local government's ability to provide indispensable services to its citizens as well as the stability of the public fisc. For the reasons explained below, we hold that the LGTCA, where applicable, limits the damages recoverable against a local government for violations of the state constitution.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This case stems from a confrontation between Espina and Jackson, occurring on August 16, 2008, which ultimately resulted in the tragic death of Espina. Prior to the confrontation, Espina was having a drink with a friend outside his apartment complex.[2]Jackson, wearing his Prince George's County police officer uniform, was patrolling the area in his marked police cruiser when he observed the two men drinking what he believed to be alcoholic beverages.[3] Hoping they would leave the area simply by virtue of his display of authority, Jackson drove past Espina and his friend twice, then parked his police cruiser and proceeded on foot towards the men. Jackson followed Espina and his friend after they entered the apartment building, using his master key to access the locked building. Once inside, a violent confrontation ensued between Jackson and Espina. Ultimately, Jackson shot and killed Espina and arrested Manuel, who had entered the apartment complex and came to his father's aid during the altercation. Although the tragic outcome of this confrontation is clear, the versions of events presented by the witnesses at trial lie in stark contrast. For a complete statement of the underlying events as presented by each party, we refer to the Court of Special Appeals's reported opinion. See Espina v. Prince George's Cnty., 215 Md.App. 611, 620-28, 82 A.3d 1240, 1245-50 (2013).

Following extensive and conflicting testimony at trial, the jury deliberated for three days and returned a verdict in favor of Petitioners, finding that Jackson (1) violated Espina's rights under Article 24 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, (2) assaulted and battered Espina, (3) wrongfully caused Espina's death, and (4) violated Manuel's Article 24 rights. The jury further determined that Jackson had acted maliciously in committing these acts. Petitioners were awarded damages totaling $11, 505, 000 as follows:[4]

• $5 million in non-economic damages for violation of Espina's Article 24 rights;
• $5, 000 in economic damages for violation of Espina's Article 24 rights;
• $0 for assault and battery of Espina;
• $5 million in non-economic damages for the wrongful death of Espina (to be divided 95% to Estela and 5% to Manuel); and
• $1.5 million in non-economic damages for violation of Manuel's Article 24 rights.

No punitive damages were awarded. Thereafter, the trial court entered judgment in the amount of $11, 505, 000 in favor of Petitioners against Jackson and the County, jointly and severally.

On Respondents' motion for remittitur, the trial court, looking to the LGTCA's "limits on liability, " first reduced the judgment as against the County to $805, 000. Subsequently, in light of the Court of Special Appeals's opinion in Leake v. Johnson, 204 Md.App. 387, 40 A.3d 1127 (2012), the Circuit Court further reduced the judgment entered against the County to $405, 000 following Respondents' motion for reconsideration and a full hearing on the matter. Based on the jury's finding of malice and pursuant to CJP § 5-302(b)(2)(i), the Circuit Court left intact the full jury award as to Jackson. On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment in part, and reduced the award entered against the County to $400, 000. Espina, 215 Md.App. at 647, 82 A.3d at 1262.[5]

Subsequently, we granted Petitioners' certiorari request, Espina v. Jackson, 438 Md. 142, 91 A.3d 613 (2014), to answer the following questions, which we have rephrased and reorganized for clarity:

(1) Do the LGTCA's limits on liability apply to damages arising from Petitioners' state constitutional claims?
(2)Is the imposition of the LGTCA's limits on liability to Petitioners' "self-executing" state constitutional claims permissible in light of the supremacy of the state constitution?[6]
(3) Are the LGTCA's limits on liability, as applied to Petitioners' state constitutional claims, permissible under Article 19?
(4)Did the Court of Special Appeals correctly apply the LGTCA's limits on liability to Petitioners' state constitutional claims, despite the jury's finding of malice and the County's stipulation as to the scope of employment?
(5)Did the Court of Special Appeals correctly reduce the verdict, as against the County, to $400, 000 by reducing Petitioners' wrongful death and survivorship actions to "an individual claim" under the LGTCA?

For the reasons stated below, we shall answer each of the questions above in the affirmative and affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

II. DISCUSSION

In the present case, we are required to discern the extent to which the LGTCA "limits on liability" (commonly referred to as the "damages cap") apply, or may apply, to Petitioners' "self-executing"[7] state constitutional claims. In essence, Petitioners urge this Court to conclude that the LGTCA damages cap has no application to state constitutional claims, or, alternatively, if the damages cap does indeed limit recovery for violations of the state constitution, its application here violates the supremacy of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, is unconstitutional under Article 19 of the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and was improper. Respondents contend that the trial court and the Court of Special Appeals properly applied the LGTCA damages cap to Petitioners' state constitutional claims and therefore we should affirm the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.

A. Petitioners' State Constitutional Claims

In addressing whether the LGTCA damages cap circumscribes Petitioners' state constitutional claims, we are confronted with an issue of statutory interpretation. We have long held that "[t]he cardinal rule of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the Legislature." Williams v. Peninsula Reg'l Med. Ctr., 440 Md. 573, 580, 103 A.3d 658, 663 (2014) (citation omitted). Our primary goal "is to discern the legislative purpose, the ends to be accomplished, or the evils to be remedied by the statutory provision[.]" Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs v. Marcas, L.L.C., 415 Md. 676, 685, 4 A.3d 946, 951 (2010) (citation omitted). As we have so often explained, in undertaking this endeavor:

[W]e begin with the normal, plain meaning of the language of the statute. If the language of the statute is unambiguous and clearly consistent with the statute's apparent purpose, our inquiry as to legislative intent ends ordinarily and we apply the statute as written, without resort to other rules of construction. We neither add nor delete language so as to reflect an intent not evidenced in the plain and unambiguous language of the statute[.] . . . We, however, do not read statutory language in a vacuum, nor do we confine strictly our interpretation of a statute's plain language to the isolated section alone. Rather, the plain language must be viewed within the context of the statutory scheme to which it belongs, considering the purpose, aim, or policy of the Legislature in enacting the statute. . . .
Where the words of a statute are ambiguous and subject to more than one reasonable interpretation, or where the words are clear and unambiguous when viewed in isolation, but become ambiguous when read as part of a larger statutory scheme, a court must resolve the ambiguity by searching for legislative intent in other indicia, including the history of the legislation or other relevant sources intrinsic and extrinsic to the legislative process. In resolving ambiguities, a court considers the structure of the statute, how it relates to other laws, its general purpose, and the relative rationality and legal effect of various competing constructions.
In every case, the statute must be given a reasonable interpretation, not one that is absurd, illogical, or ...

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