Monday, March 5, 2007

Waybright v. Frederick County Dept. of Fire & Rescue, et al. (Maryland U.S.D.C.) (Approved for Publication)

Signed March 1, 2007. Memorandum Opinion by Judge Richard D. Bennett.

Defendants' motions for summary judgment GRANTED in part (as to the federal and state constitutional claims) and DENIED in part (as to Maryland tort law claims), and REMANDED to state court for determination of the surviving claims.

This case arose out of the death of a firefighter recruit during training in Frederick County, Maryland, and was originally filed with the Circuit Court for Frederick County against the Frederick County Maryland Department of Fire & Resuce Services, the individual trainer directly involved ("Coombes"), and other individual members and officers of the Department and the Board of Commissioners of Frederick County, Maryland, and later removed to federal court in light of the claimed violation of substantive due process under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983.

Coombes and the other defendants filed separate summary judgment motions on all federal and state law claims. Coombe asserted a defense of qualified immunity with respect to the constitutional claims, where "government officials performing discretionary functions generally are shielded from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory of constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known", quoting Harlow v. Fitzgerald. In attempting to determine whether the actions at issue here "shock the conscience", the plaintiffs suggested that the "deliberate indifference" standard be applied, either under the "special relationship" or "state created danger" theories of DeShaney, or the "opportunity to deliberate" theory of the 6th Circuit Estate of Owensby case. The judge noted that the Fourth Circuit had not yet adopted the approach taken in the Owensby case, and found neither of the other approaches to apply in this case. Thus, the higher intent-to-harm standard would be applied, and in this case there was no allegation that Coombe intended to harm the trainee fireman. Therefore, the state and federal constitutional claims against Coombe failed, and summary judgment in his favor was granted.

The constitutional claims against the other defendants relied on "supervisory liability" and the judge found that they must fail, since as above there was no constitutional violation by Coombes as employee, insufficient showing of knowledge of risk of a constitutional violation, and insufficient showing of deliberate indifference to such risk. Therefore, summary judgment in favor of the other defendants on the state and federal constitutional claims was granted.

Defendants also sought summary judgment on the state tort claims, but the judge declined to rule on them, instead ordering a remand to state court for further consideration.

The opinion is available in PDF format.

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