OCEAN CITY — Some of the defendants in a wrongful death civil suit filed in federal court in May by the family of a local man struck and killed on Coastal Highway during a motorized special event in October 2017 this week filed a motion to dismiss the case.
During the October 2017 Endless Summer cruising event, Thomas Lawlor, 57, of Ocean City, attempted to cross Coastal Highway at 76th Street from west to east when he was struck by a Maryland State Police vehicle allegedly traveling at a high rate of speed in response to another incident. Lawlor was struck by an MSP Ford Explorer operated by Trooper James Price as he crossed the northbound lanes of Coastal Highway at 67th Street and ultimately succumbed to injuries sustained in the collision.
In May, the decedent’s wife, Rennae Lawlor, of Lewes, Del., and her two sons filed suit in U.S. District Court, naming Price, the MSP, the state of Maryland and the town of Ocean City as defendants. Price was named as a defendant for his alleged negligence leading up to and including the fatal collision, while the MSP and the state of Maryland were named because Price was acting as their agent at the time of the tragic accident. The town of Ocean City was named as a defendant ostensibly because it knew of the dangers of the various motorized special events, including the October cruising events, as evidenced by the creation of a task force that very year to begin addressing some of the issues associated with the special events.
On Tuesday, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh filed a motion to dismiss the case against the trooper, the MSP and the state for varied reasons including the doctrine of immunity that protects state agencies from certain civil suits, a lack of diversity of the plaintiffs that would allow the case to be heard in federal court and, perhaps most importantly, the absence of any malice or gross negligence by the trooper operating the vehicle that killed the victim.
Generally speaking, a suit can be heard in federal court if there is some measure of diversity of the plaintiffs. The victim was a resident of Maryland, indeed a resident of Ocean City, while his wife and plaintiff currently resides in Lewes, Del. Nonetheless, the motion to dismiss suggests there is not enough diversity among the plaintiffs to suggest the case should be heard in federal court. In essence, the motion suggests, if anywhere, the civil suit should likely be heard in Maryland where the incident occurred.
“The plaintiffs bring various state tort claims based on negligence and gross negligence, but no federal claims,” the memorandum in support of the motion to dismiss reads. “Because there is a lack of complete diversity among the plaintiffs and because the defendants are protected by immunity, the plaintiffs are not entitled to any relief in this court.”
The 11th amendment of the U.S. Constitution affords immunity and bars suits against states in federal court and the motion to dismiss filed on Tuesday suggests the state of Maryland cannot be sued in this case and claims against the state should be dismissed. Likewise, the MSP and the individual trooper were acting as instruments and agents of the state, and thus should be afforded the same protections.
Under the Maryland Tort Claims Act (MCTA), the immunity standard can be overridden if there is evidence of malice or gross negligence. The suit filed in May suggests the trooper acted with negligence at the time of the fateful collision, but the motion to dismiss filed on Tuesday suggests otherwise.
“The MTCA does not afford Trooper Price immunity if he acted with malice or gross negligence,” the memorandum reads. “He did not act with either and, therefore, is entitled to immunity.”
The memorandum in support of the motion to dismiss goes on to define malice and gross negligence standard needed for the suit to hold up.
“For an act to be characterized as malice, the actions must be characterized by evil or wrongful motive, intent to injure, knowing and deliberate wrongdoing, ill will or fraud,” the memorandum reads. “… The plaintiffs have not pled any facts to establish a state of mind so spiteful in nature that malice could be deduced and immunity defeated.”
The motion to dismiss asserts the complaint falls short of exhibiting even the lowest standard of malice and negligence.
“The plaintiffs have certainly not suggested that Trooper Price intentionally inflicted the injury,” the memorandum reads. “They haven’t even demonstrated, nor do they seem to imply, utter indifference, which is the lowest level of gross negligence.”
Finally, the motion to dismiss asserts even if the MSP vehicle’s emergency equipment was not activated at the time of the collision, the exigent circumstances — he was responding to another emergency situation — the suit does not meet the negligence standard and therefore must be dismissed.