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Guards Liable in Maryland Prisoner’s Murder on Transport Bus

The Maryland Court of Appeals held a trial court erred in striking a jury’s finding that a guard was liable for gross negligence in the murder of a prisoner on a transport.  The court further held gross negligence disentitles a public official to immunity under state or common law.

The lawsuit was brought by the estate of prisoner Philip E. Parker, on a prison transport bus enroute to Supermax.  The February 2, 2005 murder of Parker occurred in plain sight of other prisoners and guards.

Parker was killed by prisoner Kevin G. Johns, Jr., who was in prison for murdering his uncle.  While at Hagerstown Correctional Institution, Johns “strangled and murdered his sixteen year old cellmate”.  On February 1, 2005, Parker and three other prisoners were transported from Supermax to testify at John’s sentencing for that murder.

At that hearing, Parker testified that Johns was “paranoid”, had “a really, really short temper”, and became “very easily irritated and agitated”.  Johns was sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. On the transport bus back to Supermax, Johns killed Parker.

At trial on the civil case, the jury found guards Robert Scott, Kenyatta Surgeon, and Earl Generett were negligent on Parker’s murder.  It also found guard Larry Cooper, who was the officer-in-charge, was liable for gross negligence.  The jury awarded $10 million in non-economic damages to Parker’s estate, $1 million in non-economic damages to his father, $7.5 million in non-economic damages to his mother, and $15,000 in funeral expenses.

The trial court struck the gross negligence finding and held the guards were immune from liability under both Public Official Immunity and The Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA).  It also granted remittiturs of the jury award to $200,000 for each claimant, for a total of $600,000.

The Court of Special Appeals upheld the remittiturs, but it held the trial court erred in striking the finding of Cooper’s gross negligence and the conclusion the guards were entitled to immunity.

The Court of Appeals agreed with those rulings.  Its 52 page opinion detailed the facts.  “The record is replete with evidence demonstrating that Cooper was grossly negligent”, the court wrote.  Cooper was only “seven and one quarter feet away in a raised cage that was designed to give him a full view of the bus”.

Yet, Cooper said he never saw Parker’s murder.  “Cooper failed to follow basic procedures”, which included assuring Johns’ three point restraints, were properly secured and he did not place the four Supermax prisoners in the front of the bus.  An internal prison investigation confirmed a guard in cooper’s location would have been able to see the attack.

The court held that where a public official is grossly negligent, the official is not entitled to common law public official immunity or immunity under the MTCA.   The Court of Appeals order was affirmed.  See: Cooper v. Rodriguez, 441 Md. 61, 105 A.3d 489 (2014).

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Related legal case

Cooper v. Rodriguez