A Maryland wrongful death action against law enforcement officers, a police department, and/or the local government generally involves different legal standards than a typical lawsuit. In a July 1, 2020 opinion, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland reviewed a wrongful death case in which the decedent had been shot and killed by police officers. Following a trial, the jury found in favor of the plaintiffs and awarded them more than 38 million dollars in damages. The circuit court, however, granted the defendants’ post-trial motion and entered judgment in their favor. The plaintiffs filed the instant appeal.
In the case, two police officers attempted to serve an arrest warrant on the decedent at her apartment for failing to appear for a misdemeanor trial. Upon entering the apartment, they saw the decedent sitting on the floor with a shotgun. The officers retreated and called for backup, which led to a six-hour stand-off between the decedent and multiple law enforcement officers stationed outside her apartment. A police officer testified that the decedent pointed her gun towards officers positioned by the doorway, and at that point, he fired a shot that killed the decedent. On appeal, one of the plaintiffs’ arguments was that the circuit court erred in entering judgment for the defendants notwithstanding the jury verdict and vacating the damage award for the plaintiffs.
In determining whether a police officer has used excessive force in violation of the U.S. Constitution or Maryland Declaration of Rights, the fact-finder must look to whether the officer’s actions were objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them. The use of deadly force by a police officer is reasonable only when the officer has probable cause to believe that a person poses a threat of serious physical harm to the officer or to others. The burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the officer exceeded the level of force that an objectively reasonable officer would use under the same or similar situation.