Amidst the turmoil following Freddy Gray’s death, a significant change in law is about to take place that will make it easier for victims of police brutality to recover compensation.
The Maryland Legislature recently passed a bill that will increase to $400,000 from $200,000 the cap on damages that can be collected against negligent police officers. Governor Hogan has promised to sign the bill into law, and it would take effect on October 1.
This is a significant change and it could mean greater accountability for the police. The reason for this is that lawsuits against the police will become much more viable for plaintiffs’ attorneys. Under the current cap of $200,000, many lawyers would not even consider taking on a police brutality suit. They simply cannot make enough money to justify the effort.
While it is true that these suits can be brought in federal court, that is often not a good option. Federal juries in Maryland historically do not award big plaintiffs’ verdicts, especially against the police. Most lawyers (myself included) would much rather bring the suit in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
It is my opinion that, if the stakes are higher in these types of cases, and more suits are brought by good lawyers, the city will be forced to improve officer training so that there are fewer incidents. The alternative is to pay massive amounts of money in judgments. A shift in policy by the police department would obviously take time to play out, but I believe it would gradually trickle down to the streets.
Some have suggested that the problem could be solved if the City did not indemnify the individual officers – and the money came out of the officers’ pockets. I believe this would only make the situation worse because most officers do not have deep pockets. Plaintiffs’ lawyers would be extremely hesitant to initiate a suit in which they would only collect if the individual officer actually paid his judgment. Most officers could become “judgment proof” pretty quickly.
Unfortunately, this change in law would not apply to family of Freddie Gray. The Gray family may be stuck between a rock and a hard place: they cannot be fairly compensated in city court because of the $200,000 cap, and if they file in federal court, they could face a skeptical jury pool.