Earlier last month, the Court of Appeals of Maryland decided a case that may have lasting effects on the landscape of personal injury cases brought against government officials. In the case of Cooper v. Rodriguez, the court determined that the normal official immunity that all government employees enjoy was waived because the employee was acting in a grossly negligent manner at the time of the accident.
According to court documents, the plaintiffs in the case were the parents of an inmate who was brutally murdered while on a prison bus. The murder occurred in front of several correctional officers, who allegedly failed to stop the acts of violence. Evidence presented at trial suggested that there were several violations of Department of Corrections policy on the day in question, including too few correctional officers on the bus at the time of the murder and improper use of the three-point harness to secure the inmate who allegedly killed the other inmate. Despite the murder occurring less than eight feet from the correctional officer, he claimed to have failed to have seen anything.
The Case Against the Correctional Officers
The deceased inmate’s family filed suit against a number of parties. Most relevant to this case was the lawsuit against one of the correctional officers, Cooper, who was in charge of the inmate who allegedly murdered the plaintiffs’ son.
At trial, Cooper asserted his sovereign immunity as a government employee. Under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, a government employee or entity cannot be held liable while carrying out essential government functions. However, the plaintiffs argued that the doctrine of sovereign immunity should not apply in this case because Cooper’s actions amounted to gross negligence.
The Court’s Decision
The court began by explaining that the general rule is that government employees enjoy immunity from personal injury actions based on their torts. However, the court noted two important exceptions. First, there is an exception when the alleged negligent act occurred when the employee was not acting within the scope of his employment. The second case in which a government employee does not enjoy immunity is when their conduct amounts to gross negligence.
The court ultimately determined that, given the facts, Cooper was grossly negligent and that he should not enjoy immunity for his actions. The lawsuit against him was allowed to proceed.
Have You Been Injured in an Accident with a Government Employee?
While the facts of Cooper v. Rodriguez are not likely to be seen again, the message of the case is important in all personal injury actions brought against government employees. If you have been injured in an accident with a government employee, you may be entitled to monetary damages, but only if you are able to get around their sovereign immunity. To learn more about when sovereign immunity applies and when it does not, call 410-654-3600 to set up a free consultation with a dedicated Maryland and Washington D.C. personal injury attorney at the law firm of Lebowitz & Mzhen, LLC.
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Tyson Meat Company Recalls 15,000 Pounds of Contaminated Ground Beef Over E. Coli Concerns, Washington DC Injury Lawyer Blog, June 10, 2015