Police Academy Suit Dismissed After Recruits’ Signed Waiver Deemed Valid

SALISBURY — A federal judge last week dismissed a suit filed by a pair of recruits alleging negligence against the police academy at Wor-Wic Community College.

In March, Cynthia Mowery, a candidate for a full-time position with the Elkton Police Department, and Brian Alexander, a seasonal officer with the Ocean City Police Department, who had been offered a full-time position with the department, filed suit in U.S. District Court against the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy (ESCJA), Wor-Wic Community College, which hosts the academy, the academy’s director and assistant director and a tactical defense instructor. The suit alleged Mowery and Alexander each suffered traumatic brain injuries during the boxing segment of the academy’s tactical defense training with permanent neurological and cognitive deficits and ultimately led to them leaving the academy and abandoning potential law enforcement careers.

However, the defendants in May filed a motion to dismiss the case, asserting Mowery and Alexander had each voluntarily signed a waiver indemnifying the academy and its instructors from any liability for injuries sustained during the intense training. Moreover, the defendants asserted the training was necessarily intense to properly prepare potential law enforcement officers for the rigors of the career.

Last week, a U.S. District Court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment, effectively ending the case. According to the opinion accompanying the judge’s order, the essential element in the case was the voluntary signing of the waiver by the two plaintiffs.

“Defendants have shown that the terms of the waiver clearly and unambiguously cover the plaintiffs’ negligence claims and the waiver does not fall within an exception to enforceability recognized under Maryland law,” the opinion reads. “Therefore, the court holds that the waiver is valid and enforceable. Having found that the waiver is valid, enforceable and covers the conduct alleged to be negligence by the plaintiffs, this court finds that the defendants demonstrated there is no genuine dispute of material fact as to the negligence-based claims.”

In the complaint, the plaintiffs alleged the academy, its directors and the instructors did not institute proper safeguards during the boxing and tactical defense training to insulate them from the injuries they ultimately sustained. However, the judge’s opinion points out the participants in the training wore boxing gloves, head gear and mouth guards. In addition, the plaintiffs were asked after each scenario if they were able to continue.

“Even in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the circumstances fail to constitute gross negligence,” the opinion reads. “The defendants instituted safeguards to protect the plaintiffs and regularly asked the plaintiffs after each scenario whether they had been injured. Defendants also required that the participants box while on their knees to reduce the likelihood of severe injury.”

The judge’s opinion points out the criminal justice academy training is necessarily vigorous to prepare future law enforcement officers for real-life scenarios and if the voluntary participants were able to sue for injuries sustained, the result could be no tactical training of at least a watered-down version that would not prepare the recruits for the rigors of the career.

“If places like the academy are unable to shield themselves from the risks associated with combat training exercises, it is reasonable to expect either one of two things to happen: such training would not be provided, or such training’s intensity would be severely decreased,” the opinion reads. “Either way, the public is left with fewer means to realistically train public safety officials.”

According to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in March, Alexander graduated with an associate degree from community college in May 2017 and took a seasonal officer position with the OCPD. A short time later, Alexander was offered a full-time position with the OCPD and was sent to the ESCJA to complete entry-level training. Near the close of the training, Alexander was required to complete a boxing segment of the defense tactics curriculum, during which he was struck in the head. According to the complaint, Alexander then sat on the mat and loss consciousness.

According to the complaint, at no time did the defense tactics instructor or any officials from the ESCJA or Wor-Wic conduct any evaluations of Alexander. Finally, a fellow classmate called 911. EMTs arrived and transported Alexander to Peninsula Regional Medical Center where he was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma, or brain bleed. Surgery was performed to relieve the pressure on Alexander’s brain and he regained consciousness, but he allegedly continues to have neurological and cognitive deficits that have ended his potential law enforcement career.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.