Melissa Rodriguez, et al.
Larry Cooper, et al.
Argument: December 5, 2017
Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case No. 24-C-06-004331
Barbera, C.J. Greene Adkins McDonald Watts Getty Harrell,
Glenn T., Jr., (Senior Judge, Specially Assigned), JJ.
doctrine of sovereign immunity, "[g]rounded in ancient
common law, … bars individuals from bringing actions
against the State, thus protecting it from interference with
governmental functions and preserving its control over its
agencies and funds." Under that doctrine, the State and its
agencies may not be sued for a money judgment unless the
Legislature has waived that immunity and enabled State
agencies to obtain the funds necessary to satisfy such a
judgment. In the Maryland Tort Claims Act
("MTCA"),  the General Assembly has done so with
respect to the negligent actions or omissions of State
personnel within the scope of their public duties. Pertinent
to this case, that waiver of sovereign immunity has two key
provisos: (1) the waiver does not extend to actions
or omissions of State personnel that are grossly negligent;
and (2) a judgment against the State is capped at an amount
set by statute.
without specific reference to actions against the State or
State personnel, the Legislature has also established a cap
on noneconomic damages in all personal injury and wrongful
death actions. Maryland Code, Courts & Judicial
Proceedings Article ("CJ"), §11-108.
Noneconomic damages include, for example, damages for mental
anguish, pain and suffering, and loss of companionship or
consortium. That cap is calculated according to a statutory
formula based on when the cause of action arose and the
number of claimants.
case arises out of the murder of a State prisoner, Philip E.
Parker, Jr., by a fellow prisoner while they were both in
State custody on a prison transport bus. Mr. Parker's
estate and parents (Melissa Rodriguez and Philip E. Parker,
Sr.) - the Petitioners in this appeal - brought suit against
the State and various State officials and employees in the
Circuit Court for Baltimore City. After a jury trial, and
various post-trial and appellate proceedings, they obtained a
judgment against the State, based on the jury's finding
that certain correctional officers were negligent, and a
judgment against one correctional officer, Respondent Sgt.
Larry Cooper, based on the jury's finding that he was
grossly negligent. The Circuit Court limited the judgment
against the State pursuant to the statutory cap under the
MTCA, and limited the judgment against Sgt. Cooper pursuant
to the cap on noneconomic damages in CJ §11-108. The
court declined to include the State in the judgment against
Sgt. Cooper because the waiver of the State's sovereign
immunity in the MTCA does not extend to actions or omissions
that are grossly negligent.
appeal, Petitioners seek to avoid the application of the caps
in the MTCA and CJ §11-108, as well as the doctrine of
sovereign immunity, making a number of creative arguments. We
agree with the Circuit Court and the Court of Special Appeals
that those arguments are without merit.
Parker was murdered by a fellow inmate on February 2, 2005,
while they were both on a prison transport bus destined for a
maximum security State correctional facility in Baltimore
City known as "Supermax." The circumstances of the
murder were described in detail in this Court's previous
opinion in this case. Cooper v. Rodriguez, 443 Md.
680, 688-703 (2015). There is no need to repeat those facts
here. Because the questions before us in this appeal relate
to the post-trial decisions of the Circuit Court that
affected the judgments rendered as a result of the jury
verdict, we recount the procedural path of this case in some
2006, the Petitioners filed this action in the Circuit Court
for Baltimore City against the State, several officials of
the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services
("DPSCS"), and various correctional officers. Sgt.
Cooper was one of the defendant correctional officers. The
suit alleged claims under both State and federal law relating
to Mr. Parker's murder.
defendants, all represented by the Attorney General's
Office, removed the case to the United States District Court
for the District of Maryland and sought dismissal of the
suit. The federal court granted summary judgment in favor of
the defendants on the federal claims and remanded the
remaining State law claims to the Circuit Court - a decision
affirmed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth
Circuit. Parker v. Maryland, 413 Fed.Appx. 634 (4th
case was tried in the Circuit Court before a jury during
October 11 - 24, 2011. During the trial, the Petitioners
dismissed their claims against one DPSCS official and the
Circuit Court dismissed the claims against two others on the
basis of public official immunity. The jury returned a
verdict in favor of one of the correctional officers and
verdicts in favor of the Petitioners against the State and
the four remaining correctional officers. The jury found that
three of the officers were negligent and that one - Sgt.
Cooper - was grossly negligent. The jury also found that the
correctional officers' negligence was a proximate cause
of Mr. Parker's death. The jury awarded $10 million in
noneconomic damages to the estate, $1 million in noneconomic
damages to Mr. Parker's father, $7.5 million in
noneconomic damages to Mr. Parker's mother, and $15, 000
in funeral expenses.
defendants filed various post-trial motions. In particular,
the defendants asked the Circuit Court to enter judgment in
their favor notwithstanding the verdict ("judgment
NOV") and submitted two motions for remittitur of the
jury's verdict. The motion for judgment NOV asked the
court to enter judgment in favor of the correctional officers
on the basis of common law public official immunity and
statutory immunity under the MTCA. With respect to Sgt.
Cooper in particular, that motion asked the court to strike
the finding of gross negligence. One motion for remittitur
asked the court to limit the damages award to be entered
against the State as a result of the negligence verdict to
the statutory cap - $200, 000 - then established in the MTCA.
The second motion for remittitur asked that, if the Circuit
Court did not grant the motion for judgment NOV with respect
to the finding of gross negligence against Sgt. Cooper, it
apply the general cap on noneconomic damages set forth in CJ
§11-108 to limit the judgment against Sgt. Cooper to
response to the defendants' post-trial motions, the
Circuit Court struck the jury's finding that Sgt. Cooper
had been grossly negligent. With respect to all of the
correctional officers, the Circuit Court held that they were
immune from liability on the basis of public official
immunity as well as the immunity provision of the MTCA.
Accordingly, it entered judgment NOV as to each officer,
struck the damages awards against the individual officers,
and entered judgment against the State. In computing the
amount of that judgment, the court ruled that there were
three claimants for purposes of the judgment against the
State and capped the compensatory damages owing to each
claimant under the MTCA at $200, 000. As a result of its
various rulings, the court entered judgment against the State
in a total amount of $600, 000. The court did not rule on the
second motion for remittitur based on CJ §11-108 as to
the judgment against Sgt. Cooper, presumably because it had
granted judgment NOV in favor of Sgt. Cooper and there was no
judgment against which such a remittitur could be applied.
Petitioners and the State both appealed. The Court of Special
Appeals held that there was sufficient evidence to support a
finding of gross negligence as to Sgt. Cooper and, for that
reason, Sgt. Cooper was not entitled to statutory immunity
under the MTCA. Rodriguez v. State, 218 Md.App. 573,
598-615 (2014). It also held that common law public official
immunity did not apply under the circumstances of the case.
218 Md.App. at 615-29. Accordingly, it reversed the judgment
NOV that the Circuit Court had granted in Sgt. Cooper's
favor. It remanded the case for entry of judgment against
Sgt. Cooper "subject, however, to any rights of
remittitur that may remain unaddressed by the trial
court." Id. at 629 & n.8. The intermediate
appellate court also held that the Circuit Court had
calculated the damage limitation under the MTCA incorrectly
and held that the statute capped the cumulative judgment
against the State at $200, 000. Id. at 632-39.
Cooper then filed another motion for remittitur in the
Circuit Court, reiterating the contention made in the earlier
motion that the cap on noneconomic damages set forth in CJ
§11-108 applied to the verdict against
The Circuit Court stayed proceedings concerning the motion
for remittitur while Sgt. Cooper sought further review in
this Court of the intermediate appellate court's decision
to reinstate the verdict against him. We granted Sgt.
Cooper's request for a writ of certiorari, but
affirmed the decision of the Court of Special Appeals,
although on somewhat different reasoning. Cooper v.
Rodriguez, 443 Md. 680 (2015). The case then returned to
the Circuit Court.
after First Appeal
remand, the Circuit Court granted Sgt. Cooper's motion
for remittitur - the motion that had been stayed while the
case was under consideration by this Court in the first
appeal - and, based on CJ §11-108, reduced the award of
noneconomic damages against him to $645, 000. After
Petitioners filed a motion for reconsideration, the Circuit
Court corrected the calculation of the remittitur as to Sgt.
Cooper and entered judgment in the amount of $1, 625,
The Circuit Court rejected Petitioners' request to
include the State in that judgment.
Circuit Court's order applying the remittitur initially
indicated a judgment of $1, 625, 000 against "the
defendants." In response to a defense motion under
Maryland Rules 2-534 and 2-535, the Circuit Court revised its
order to make it consistent with its ruling on the post-trial
motions and clarified that the judgment was against "Mr.
Petitioners again appealed, challenging (1) the Circuit
Court's application of CJ §11-108 to reduce the
judgment against Sgt. Cooper and (2) the Circuit Court's
rejection of their request to enter that judgment against the
State as well as Sgt. Cooper. The Court of Special Appeals
rejected Petitioners' contention that Sgt. Cooper had
waived application of CJ §11-108 and held that the
Circuit Court had correctly applied that statute in limiting
the judgment against him. The intermediate appellate court
also held that the Circuit Court had correctly declined to
enter that judgment against the State because the State had
not waived sovereign immunity under the circumstances of this
then sought a writ of certiorari on the same two
issues, which we granted.
seek to overturn two decisions of the Circuit Court: (1) its
decision to grant a remittitur of the judgment against Sgt.
Cooper pursuant to CJ §11-108; and (2) its rejection of
their request that it hold the State liable for the judgment
against Sgt. Cooper.
Standard of Review
respect to the first question, as indicated above, the
Circuit Court capped the judgment against Sgt. Cooper under
CJ §11-108 in response to a defense motion for a
remittitur. It is often said that a trial court's
decision to grant or deny a remittitur is discretionary with
the trial court and is thus reviewed on appeal under an abuse
of discretion standard. E.g., State v.
Walker, 230 Md. 133, 137 (1962). However, this standard
of review likely derives from the fact a motion for, or order
of, remittitur generally relates to a trial court's
evaluation of the amount of the jury's verdict in
relation to the evidence the jury heard - that is, whether
the verdict is "grossly excessive, " or
"shocks the conscience" of the trial
judge. See, e.g., Conklin v.
Schillinger, 255 Md. 50, 69-70 (1969); Safeway
Trails, Inc. v. Smith, 222 Md. 206, 223 (1960).
case, the issue is not the trial court's evaluation of
the verdict in relation to the evidence, but rather its
application of a statute to that verdict. The Circuit Court
was not so much exercising discretion as applying the mandate
of CJ §11-108 ("the court shall ... reduce
…"). The Circuit Court's decision was based
on a conclusion of law - i.e., that CJ §11-108
applies to the judgment against Sgt. Cooper. We review a
Circuit Court's decision on a question of law without
deference - sometimes referred to as a de novo
standard of review - rather than under an abuse of discretion
standard of review. That is what we shall do here.
second question under review is whether the Circuit Court
correctly declined to include the State in the judgment
entered against Sgt. Cooper. Technically, that decision was
the result of (1) the Circuit Court's denial of
Petitioners' motion for reconsideration of the
court's decision not to enter judgment against the State
in excess of the $200, 000 cap under the MTCA and (2) the
Circuit Court's grant of a subsequent defense motion
under Maryland Rules 2-534 and 2-535 to correct an apparent
clerical error in an order resulting from that denial. Such
decisions will not be reversed by an appellate court unless
the trial court abused its discretion or committed an error
of law. See, e.g., Morton v. Schlotzhauer, 449 Md.
217, 231-34 (2016).
case, it is evident from the Circuit Court's memorandum
opinion on the Petitioners' motion for reconsideration
that the court was of the view that it was legally
constrained from granting a motion to include the State in
the judgment against Sgt. Cooper. In particular, the Circuit
Court held that the MTCA and other State law precluded it
from entering judgment against the State in excess of $200,
000. It is that legal decision that Petitioners are
Court of Special Appeals agreed with the Circuit Court's
resolution of the legal issues as to both questions before
us. The bottom line as to both questions is that we will
consider the legal conclusions reached by the Circuit Court
(as well as the Court of Special Appeals) without deference
to those courts.
Whether the Circuit Court Properly Applied CJ
§11-108 to Limit the Judgment
assert that the cap on noneconomic damages set forth in CJ
§11-108 should not have been applied to the judgment
against Sgt. Cooper in this case and offer three alternative
rationales for that assertion:
(1) That, for various reasons, the statutory cap was waived;
(2) That the cap does not apply when a defendant is found to
be grossly negligent;
(3) That the cap does not apply to the State or its
for the same reasons articulated by the Circuit Court and the
Court of Special Appeals, we reject those arguments and hold
that the Circuit Court appropriately applied the cap on
noneconomic damages in CJ §11-108 to the judgment
against Sgt. Cooper.
assert that Sgt. Cooper waived the application of CJ
§11-108 because he did not press the Circuit Court for
an "alternative" ruling when that court granted
judgment NOV in his favor in 2011 and did not raise the cap
during the previous appeal in this case.
initial matter, it is not at all clear that a litigant has
the ability to waive the cap on noneconomic damages
established by CJ §11-108. Notably, the statute states
that an award of noneconomic damages "may not
exceed" the cap and directs that a trial court
"shall reduce" an award in excess of the cap,
without requiring any particular action by the party against
whom the judgment is rendered. CJ §11-108(b), (d). In a
prior case assessing the constitutionality of the statute,
this Court observed that, when the General Assembly enacted
CJ §11-108, it "abrogated any cause of action for
noneconomic tort damages in excess of [the cap]; it removed
the issue from the judicial arena." Murphy v.
Edmonds, 325 Md. 342, 373 (1992). It seems unlikely that
the General Assembly contemplated that the courts would
re-introduce the issue into the judicial arena through the
concept of a waiver by one of the litigants.
event, even if it were possible for a particular litigant to
waive the statutory cap with respect to a judgment against
that litigant, there is no basis for finding such a waiver in
this case. As recounted above, the defense specifically
relied on CJ §11-108 in the post-trial motion for
remittitur with respect to the judgment against Sgt. Cooper -
a motion made on the contingency that the Circuit Court would
not grant a judgment NOV in favor of Sgt. Cooper. When the
Circuit Court in fact granted judgment NOV in favor of Sgt.
Cooper, there was no longer a judgment against him and no
need to address the motion for remittitur as to a judgment
that did not exist. Unsurprisingly, the Circuit Court did not
do so. When the judgment NOV as to Sgt. Cooper was later
reversed by the Court of Special Appeals, the intermediate
appellate court alluded to the unresolved motion for
remittitur,  the defense reiterated that motion in
the Circuit Court, and the application of CJ §11-108 was
appropriately addressed at that time.
defense was not required to insist that the Circuit Court
render an advisory opinion - "a long forbidden
practice" - on the application of CJ §11-108
in the event that the judgment was reversed on appeal. Such a
rule, if adopted, would result in litigants having to imagine
every possible permutation of how the case might be resolved
on appeal, before an appeal was even noted, and asking trial
courts to render advisory opinions on the consequences of
those various permutations. The trial courts have too much to
do to be required to foretell and to react to possible future
appellate court rulings.
there any obligation for the defense to raise the issue of
the cap on noneconomic damages in defending the Circuit
Court's judgment in the first appeal. The Circuit
Court had granted a judgment NOV with respect to the
jury's verdict of gross negligence as to Sgt. Cooper and,
pursuant to the MTCA, as to the money judgment against him
and the other correctional officers. As a result, Sgt. Cooper
had essentially prevailed in the Circuit Court, as there was
no judgment entered against him - or any of the other
correctional officers. There was no obligation for the
defense to raise on appeal what was an academic issue at that
juncture. Indeed, Sgt. Cooper could not have done so, had he
wanted to. A "basic rule of appellate
jurisprudence" is that "[a] party may not ...