Gaines, 23, was shot and killed in her home in Randallstown, an unincorporated community in Baltimore County, in August 2016 after a six-hour standoff with police. Kodi — who was 5 at the time — was struck by gunfire twice, in the face and the elbow.
A jury found that the first shot from the police officer who fired at Gaines was not reasonable, and therefore violated her and her son’s civil rights under state and federal statutes. The jury Friday awarded more than $32 million in damages to Kodi, $4.5 million for his sister, Karsyn, and smaller amounts to other family members.
However, the Local Government Tort Claims Act, which stems from a law enacted in the 1980s, generally limits a local government’s payout in a lawsuit to $400,000 per plaintiff, or $800,000 for claims connected to a single incident.
Even so, Baltimore County could be on the hook for more, experts said, because the jury found that the officer who shot and killed Gaines violated her and her son’s federal constitutional rights, the penalties for which are not capped by state law.
A. Dwight Pettit, who often represents plaintiffs who sue police officers but wasn’t involved in this case, predicted an intense fight in the appellate courts. “You’re starting at least at $800,000 and it could be more if the constitutional claims survive,” he said.
“A lot of these jurisdictions have become emboldened by the cap,” Pettit said. “They don’t think they have real exposure. If these jurisdictions had to pay out these large amounts of money, these police brutality cases would go away very, very quickly.”
Pettit won the largest jury award in Maryland history against a law enforcement officer in 2004 — a $105 million civil verdict against former Baltimore Police Officer Rodney Price, who killed a man he believed was having an affair with his wife.
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But a judge reduced that to about $27 million, and Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals ruled in 2006 that Price was not “acting within the scope of his employment” and therefore Baltimore’s government was not responsible for paying anything at all.
Plaintiffs have had a hard time collecting other large awards against police.
In 2006, a Baltimore Circuit Court jury awarded $44 million to Albert Mosley because of a 2003 encounter with an officer inside a city jail cell that left Mosley a quadriplegic.
Former Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson said the city refused to pay the multimillion-dollar verdict in the case — arguing that it wasn’t responsible for covering awards against police officers who were found to have acted with malice — and eventually the plaintiff’s lawyers agreed to a $1 million payout.
Regarding the Gaines case, Nilson said: “Any award against the county would be subject to the state cap.”
Baltimore County government attorney Mike Field issued a statement after Friday’s verdict, saying the county is reviewing its options in the Gaines case, “including an appeal.”