Maryland Appellate Court Reinstates Verdict Against Prince George’s County Police Department For Wrongful Death In High-Speed Police Chase
In a recently released opinion, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reinstated a substantial jury verdict that Mark Miller and Nancy Miller earned for one of our clients against the Prince George’s County Police Department.
On March 19, 2015, at 8:40 p.m., Corporal Keith Martinez of the Prince George’s County Police Department made a traffic stop of a KIA Sorrento on Branch Avenue near Iverson Mall. The driver of the KIA, Larry Hinson, was driving without headlights. After initially pulling over, Hinson fled the traffic stop at a high rate of speed. Corporal Martinez, who was standing on the side of Branch Avenue, instructed another officer who had arrived at the scene to begin chasing after Hinson. As he was being pursued by three police officers at speed in excess of 80 mph, Hinson crashed into a vehicle being operated by Charles Viverette. Mr. Viverette sustained fatal injuries in the crash.
The Prince George’s County Police Department General Orders specifically forbid high-speed police pursuits in most instances because they are so inherently dangerous. In relevant part, the General Orders state:
“When officers operate vehicles in pursuit, the primary concern shall be the preservation of life. Officers must not disregard safety with a single-minded goal of apprehension… Officers may engage in vehicle pursuits… [only] if there is reason to believe that the fleeing suspect is committing, has committed or attempted to commit any of the following: A homicide, a contact shooting, an armed robbery, or armed carjacking.”
After the accident, Mr. Viverette’s family was understandably upset. “The police shouldn’t have been chasing him. That was a big crowded street,” said Evelyn Viverette, 83, mother of Charles Viverette. “He wouldn’t have hit my son if the police hadn’t been chasing him.” As a result, we filed a wrongful death action on behalf of the family against Prince George’s County, as well as the individual officers involved in the chase.
After three days of trial, the question submitted to the jury was whether Corporal Martinez was negligent in instructing Corporal Downey to chase Hinson, whose only known offense was driving without headlights and fleeing the traffic stop. The jury answered “YES”, finding Martinez negligent in instituting the police pursuit. The jury further found that said negligence was a proximate cause of the injuries sustained by Mr. Viverette and awarded the Plaintiffs $477,228.00.
Subsequently, Martinez filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, arguing he was entitled to statutory immunity under to §19-103(b) of the Transportation Article. Under Transportation Article § 19-103(b): “An operator of an emergency vehicle, who is authorized to operate the emergency vehicle by its owner or lessee while operating the emergency vehicle in the performance of emergency service… shall have the immunity from liability.” Notably, the Defendant’s Motion did not allege common law public official immunity applied. Mrs. Viverette argued in opposition to the Motion that Martinez was outside of his cruiser when he instructed Corporal Downey to chase Hinson. Therefore, the immunity under TA § 19-103 did not apply to Martinez.
Following oral argument, the circuit court found that Martinez was entitled to common law public official immunity (even though he did not raised that issue at any point). The Court also found that Martinez was entitled to statutory immunity, as “the evidence is the officers were in county police vehicles in pursuit of a suspected violator of a law in an emergency vehicle.” The trial judge thereby vacated the jury’s verdict. Ms. Viverette then filed a timely appeal.
After a long appeals process, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the circuit court, reinstating the verdict in favor of the Plaintiff. First, as to common law immunity, COSA found that Martinez had not raised the argument as to common law immunity at the close of evidence or in his motion JNOV. Under Maryland Rule 2-532(a), “a party may move for judgment notwithstanding the verdict only if that party made a motion for judgment at the close of all the evidence and only on the grounds advanced in support of the earlier motion.” Thus, the circuit court erred in relying upon an argument that had not been properly raised by the Defendant.
With regard to the immunity offered by TA § 19-103, the Court found that “the trial court erred in substituting its view of the evidence for the jury’s verdict relative to whether Corporal Martinez was ‘operating’ his vehicle.” Rather, the Court held that it was within the province of the jury to determine if Corporal Martinez’s instruction to pursue Hinson’s vehicle was an act of negligence that was committed outside of his patrol car. “Because that appears to be what the jury found to be the facts,” the Court concluded, “we agree with Mrs. Viverette that TA § 19-103 does not apply.”
Thus, after a lengthy fight at both the trial and appellate courts, justice finally arrived for our very deserving clients. In total, our firm recovered $712,425.36 for the family, including the available insurance policies, the verdict and post-judgment interest. To read the opinion in full, click here.