Friday, March 24, 2017

Maryland Court of Special Appeals Upholds Decision Holding Prince George's County Liable for the Actions of an Off-Duty Police Officer

Prince George’s County v. Morales, 230 Md. App. 699, 149 A.3d 741 (2016)

In October 2010, the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at the University of Maryland at College Park held a Halloween party at an off-campus house. As with so many Halloween parties unfortunately, it ended with a physical altercation and a lawsuit.

The fraternity hired Prince George’s County Police Officer Dominique Richardson to provide security at the party. Officer Richardson was assigned to “light duty” at the time due to his recent knee surgery, thus he violated a policy that prevented officers on light duty from performing extra work. An altercation occurred at the Halloween Party in which Officer Richardson admitted that he punched and restrained the aggressive Plaintiff and party-goer Steven Morales.

Plaintiff filed a civil suit against Officer Richardson and Prince George’s County alleging battery, excessive force and vicarious liability. The jury found that the County was liable for the actions Officer Richardson under the theory of respondeat superior, and awarded the Plaintiff $121,141.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals affirmed the judgment against the County despite the County’s argument on appeal that Officer Richardson was acting outside of the scope of his employment due to his light duty restrictions. The Court disagreed with the County, and based its opinion on Prince George’s County’s “Extra-Duty Policy,” which permits an off-duty officer to take police action when circumstances warrant.  The Court stated that the crowd at the party became “agitated” and Morales became “aggressive,” which permits a police officer to intervene under the “Extra-Duty Policy.” The Court also noted that Officer Richardson was wearing his PGPD badge next to a marked a police cruiser, making Officer Richardson identifiable as a police officer. Evidently, the Court was not concerned with the fact that any other party-goer could have been dressed as a police officer on the night of a Halloween party.

The Court found that the “Extra-Duty Policy” coupled specifically with Plaintiff’s aggression, created sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Officer Richardson was operating within the scope of his duties as the circumstances warranted police action. Thus, the County was found vicariously liable for the actions of Officer Richardson and the judgment was affirmed in favor of the Plaintiff. 

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