Thursday, April 12, 2007

McNack v. State (Ct. of Appeals)

Filed April 12, 2007. Opinion by Judge Dale R. Cathell.

From the official headnote:
Seven members of the Dawson family died as a result of the alleged firebombing of their home by drug-dealers. Relatives of the Dawson family filed suit against various governmental entities asserting that their actions violated the state constitutional rights of the Dawson family and that said entities were also negligent in failing to protect the Dawson family from the drug-dealers. Reviewing the trial court’s grant of the governmental entities’ motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, the Court of Appeals held that the Circuit Court for Baltimore City was correct as a matter of law when it found that the state-created danger theory did not apply in Maryland or, even if applicable, did not apply under the circumstances of the case and that a special relationship did not exist between the appellees and the Dawson family. The Court further held that the trial court did not err in dismissing the case prior to discovery being conducted.
This case arose out of the tragic deaths of the Dawson family, whose home was firebombed in retaliation for the Dawsons' efforts to combat the illicit drug trade in their neighborhood. The suit was filed by certain relatives of the Dawsons ("McNack") against the State and City, and virtually every public official involved in law enforcement at the time (collectively, the "State"), alleging violations of the Dawsons' right to due process and equal protection under Maryland's Declaration of Rights, and negligence in failing to protect the Dawsons. The State defendants argued that they did not owe a duty to, nor did a "special relationship" exist with, the Dawsons. The Baltimore City Circuit Court agreed, and dismissed.

The Court issued a writ of certiorari, and on appeal McNack questioned the trial court's rulings on the due process rights under the 'state created danger' doctrine, on the lack of a "special relationship", and on dismissing the case prior to the opportunity to conduct discovery.

The Court noted that Maryland had not yet, by statute or caselaw, adopted the state created danger theory to impose liability upon governmental entities for private acts that, if committed by the government, would violate constitutionally protected rights, even where no special relationship exists between the government and the injured person, where the state has increased the risk of harm to its citizens through its own acts. Moreover, even in those cases where it has been recognized in other states, the claims were all brought under federal law, and not the Declaration of Rights of the Maryland Constitution or other state constitutions. Finally, even if the Court were to adopt the state created danger doctrine here, there were no affirmative acts by the State in this instance, and the Court therefore declined to decide the application of the doctrine in this case.

Turning to the negligence claim, the Court looked to the "seminal" Ashburn case for guidance, and found that there must be a "special relationship" between the officer and the individual in order to create a duty to that individual, that is, a demonstration that the officer affirmatively acted to protect the specific victim or group, thereby inducing the victim or group to rely upon the officer. Here, the Court did not find that the pattern of 911 and 311 calls by the Dawsons, the promises to put the family on the "Special Attention List", or suggestions that the family move or be placed in a protective status created such a special relationship, under either the first or second prongs of the Ashburn test. The Court found that the result here to be consistent with the public policy considerations present in Ashburn.

Since the allegations would not suffice to establish a duty based upon a special relationship, the Court found no error in dismissing prior to discovery.

The opinion is available in PDF format.

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