It was not a dark and stormy night, just a regular one. My workday had ended a little later than usual. Having worked all day standing at the laboratory bench, I was looking forward to getting home, plonking myself on the sofa and putting my feet up, a position which invariably serves as open invitations to both our cat-babies to jump up on my extended legs and immediately fall asleep. In other words, bliss.
Our trustworthy workhorse of a car—a silver Subaru Impreza—affectionately known as “Impy”—was headed North through Greenmount Avenue, a stretch of road I’ve been taking to and from work for the past 5 years or so. The missus, who wasn’t in the car at this time, is not too fond of this road. It’s rather narrow, what with parked cars on both sides of the two-way street leaving only a single usable lane each way. There are potholes, bumps, drops and undulations aplenty, some naturally formed, many left by one or more of ever-present construction zones, which seem to have been going on since the beginning of time. The traffic lights along the way are poorly coordinated, which makes for a ratchety, stop-and-go drive reminiscent of the dying breaths of the hero’s best friend in a Bollywood action drama.
Most significantly, in certain neighborhoods along the way, people show a predilection for randomly stepping on to the road regardless of oncoming traffic. Some apologetically scurry, some languidly lope, across to the opposite sidewalk. We once had the pleasure of witnessing two elderly gentlemen—one in a wheelchair and the other using a walker—flow onto the street while animatedly discussing something, completely oblivious of the traffic in both directions, which stood still shy of the ambit of their promenade with bated breath.
And there are always the ubiquitous young ‘uns, displaying their balance and skill of riding the back-wheel of a bicycle with the front wheel raised off the ground, a maneuver known as a ‘wheelie’, I’m told. Sometimes gravity gets the better of their enthusiasm, making the bicycle topple over backwards, causing them to dismount (if they are nimble) or fall (if not). I’m always afraid that they might get seriously hurt, especially when their stunt projects them onto the path of oncoming traffic, but so far, I haven’t seen anything worse than perhaps a little bruised ego.
I love it. I love driving through Greenmount with its ever-mutating neighborhood vistas and multitude of human dramas unfolding from intersection to intersection. At certain times of the day, a little deliberate and carefully reckless clutch-accelerator action may even make for a reasonable green-light corridor to breeze through.
It’s perhaps fitting, therefore, that on Greenmount I got my first contact with Maryland law and got intimate with its doctrine of “Sovereign Immunity”.
Spoiler: It was not pleasant.
On that fateful evening, Impy and I were gently trundling along Greenmount towards home. It was around 8:15 pip emma, when I stopped at a red light at the intersection of Greenmount Avenue and East 25th Street. I glanced at the big bold letters of the DOLLAR GENERAL storefront sign, black over yellow background, hovering over a vacant parking lot to the right. But what caught my attention was that, about 50 feet directly ahead of me, on the other side of the intersection, there was a serious scene going on; several Baltimore City Police cruisers flashing red and blue, and at least one Baltimore Fire Department ambulance, blocked the way, while a yellow ‘Do Not Cross’ tape and orange traffic cones cordoned off the area. Uniformed police officers were milling about.
“Oh great” was my first thought, as I realized I would have to take detour around the area, which would of course add time to my commute. I looked to the right to find an empty spot along East 25th where I could stand and ask Siri to plot a course to home, bracing myself for the inevitable rounds of route recalculation when the map tries to swing me back to Greenmount and I can’t. And right then…
For a moment it felt as if the front left side of my stationary Subaru had clashed with an angry, charging rhinoceros, which shoved it to a northeasterly angle. In a daze, I looked out from the driver side window, and the casing of my left side-view mirror had been ripped out, while the mirror was lolling at an unnatural angle. And there was a Baltimore City Police cruiser stopped right there with top flashers on. Still shaken, I switched off the ignition, emerged from the car, and walking to where the mirror casing had flown off, picked it up and brought it back to my car—a sequence of actions without any conscious thought. It seemed like all this was happening to someone else, and I was watching the events live on TV.
“Sir! Sir, are you okay? Are you injured?” I was jolted out of my reverie at the voice of a police officer, the same officer who was driving the cruiser. In his rush to reach the ongoing scene ahead—someone with a gun, he informed me—he was going to pass me on the left. But the single drivable lane on good old Greenmount (remember?) meant that he had actually crossed the solid yellow traffic-dividing line onto the way of oncoming traffic, and then had to swerve right hard to avoid a car which had made a right turn to Greenmount southward from East 25th. And in doing so, his police cruiser ‘side-swiped’—a term heretofore in my vocabulary only in the context of spy thrillers and TV crime dramas with car chases—my poor 5-year-old Subaru.
“No, I think I am okay. But my car is not,” I told the officer. He was sympathetic. He also said both he and I were obligated to wait, that he had already called the Baltimore City Police Department’s Accident Investigation Unit, who would dispatch someone to come take stock of the situation and file an official report.
With no choice in the matter, I stood at the spot, leaning against my car. The officer, who seemed like a nice gentleman, chatted me up. I told him I worked at Hopkins and was going home; that we came to Baltimore from New York City a decade ago, not really expecting to be comfortable here, but then the “Charm City” grew on us. He indicated he was biding his time and counting the days to his retirement when he would scoot off to Florida. Kind of the quintessential American dream for one’s sunset years, I guess.
The wait stretched into more than an hour when the BCPD AIU showed up in the person of one Detective Robert Leepa. His face all somber with appropriate situational gravitas, he checked my license and registration number, asked me and the other officer our versions of the incident while jotting down notes, and finally gave me his card with the date, incident number, and the phone number to Baltimore City Claims department scribbled at the back, instructing me to call them should I wish to pursue a claim for the damages caused to my car.
The scene in front had cleared out by then. The officers vanished within seconds. Impy and I lumbered home, whereupon I called GEICO, my insurance company, to report the incident and ask for my options. GEICO told me that this would be a no-fault incident, and it would take care of the repairs—and pay for a rental while Impy is being worked on—but I had to pay my $500 deductible. The second option was for me to call the City Claims and ask if they would accept financial responsibility for the incident.
In a bout of touching naiveté, I called the City Claims next morning to ask, and they sweetly told me that it would take 30-45 business days for the City investigators to assess my claim and only then would they decide if the City would pay for the damages or not. Since Impy was our only mode of family transportation, it was impossible to choose that option—especially when I had just discovered, in the light of the day, that apart from the demolished side-view mirror, there was a nasty dent in the driver-side front wheel well and the wheel appeared to be damaged, too, enough to raise driving safety concerns.
I brought my woes to GEICO. Long story short, GEICO did a wonderful job taking care of everything, but I had to pay the deductible; it also offered to start a subrogation process, where it would ask the City to pay me back the deductible. Pursuant to this, the City sent me a letter on the letterhead of Baltimore Mayor Jack Young, along with a claim form which was astonishingly detailed—and included an area where I had to draw a diagram showing positions of vehicle and directions of movement. I think I did a good job providing details and sent it off to Baltimore City’s Department of Law.
About a week ago, I got a morning call from GEICO. The representative simply stated that due to the “Sovereign Immunity” protections enjoyed by Maryland Police Officers, Firemen, and certain government officials in course of their duties, they cannot be held responsible in a civil lawsuit for a car accident or injuries to the driver or passenger(s). Therefore, the Baltimore City was leaving GEICO and me with zero legal recourse for the damages sustained to Impy and repairs I paid for, because the police officer was responding to a crime scene.
The doctrine of “Sovereign Immunity”, a deterrence to lawsuits against the government, stems from early English common law, which rendered the monarchs immune to accusations of misdeeds. It’s ironical that given the history between British Rule and the United States, the modern-day democratic Republic of the US should choose to retain this antiquated and often poorly defined provision which severely restricts its citizens from holding governmental entities accountable for damage via negligent acts, but as discussed by noted attorney Karen Kruger in a 2006 publication, said immunity is apparently “deeply ingrained in Maryland law.” (Kruger, 2006)
Under the Maryland Tort Claims Act and the provisions of the Local Government Tort Claims Act, the “Sovereign Immunity” may be waived under certain conditions. But the requirements and the procedural bars are intentionally kept so high that it is impossible to proceed without legal representation, and even then, wrote Kruger in her paper:
… Maryland litigators struggle with the theoretical underpinnings of the doctrine of sovereign immunity and the various statutory and jurisprudential exceptions to this immunity that relate to the civil liability of the government and its employees. […]. The competent litigator must fully explore these issues before filing or defending a suit, or she risks losing a claim or defense.
What’s an ordinary Joe Schmo like me to do? By all accounts, I’m not the first, nor going to be the last, to have suffered thusly in the hands of police. The legal blogosphere is replete with such reports written by personal injury lawyers. In 2014, a channel ABC7 investigation with data from counties in Maryland and Virginia revealed more than 2300 police-involved vehicular accidents within a span of 4 years (Sterman, 2014).
There’s a saying amongst my people in India: It’s 18 scratches if a tiger touches you; it’s minimum 36 should you happen to run across the police. Who would have thought that this old aphorism would return to haunt me in Baltimore City in 2019?
- Kruger, K. J. (2006). Governmental Immunity in Maryland: A Practitioner’s Guide to Making and Defending Tort Claims. University of Baltimore Law Review, 36(1 (Fall 2006)), Article 3. Retrieved from http://scholarworks.law.ubalt.edu/ublr/vol36/iss1/3 Last Accessed. 10/25/2019
- Sterman, J. (2014, 11/20/2014). Cop cruiser crashes: You pay the cost when local police cause accidents, News Report. WJLA-ABC7. Retrieved from https://wjla.com/news/crime/cop-cruiser-crashes-you-pay-the-cost-when-local-police-cause-accidents-109196 Last Accessed: 10/25/2019.