Williams v. Baltimore

Decision Date08 June 2000
Docket NumberNo. 124,124
Citation359 Md. 101,753 A.2d 41
PartiesMary WILLIAMS et al. v. The MAYOR & CITY COUNCIL OF BALTIMORE et al.
CourtMaryland Court of Appeals

Joseph Kaufman and Howard J. Schulman (Schulman & Kaufman, LLC, on brief), Baltimore, for petitioners.

Sean Malone (Dara L. Munoz, on brief), Baltimore, for respondents.

Argued before BELL, C.J., and ELDRIDGE, RODOWSKY, RAKER, WILNER, CATHELL and THEODORE G. BLOOM, (retired, specially assigned), JJ. CATHELL, Judge.

On November 6, 1996, petitioners, Mary Williams et al.,1 brought this negligence action in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against the State of Maryland, the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, and Baltimore City Police Officer Edward Colbert, under the Maryland Tort Claims Act and the Local Government Tort Claims Act. The claim arose out of a domestic violence incident in which Gerald Watkins shot and partially paralyzed Mary Williams, his girlfriend's mother, shot and killed Valerie Williams, his girlfriend and mother of his child, and then shot and killed himself. On January 22, 1997, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City dismissed the claims against the State and the City. The case proceeded against Officer Colbert until February 27, 1998, when another judge on the Circuit Court for Baltimore City entered summary judgment in favor of the police officer. Petitioners appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, challenging the two orders issued by the judges.2 In an opinion filed September 7, 1999, that court affirmed the judgments of the trial court. Williams v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, 128 Md.App. 1, 736 A.2d 1084 (1999). Petitioners presented three questions to this Court, for which we granted certiorari:

I. Was [respondent] Officer Colbert divested of discretion and mandated by [Maryland Code (1957, 1996 Repl.Vol., 1999 Cum.Supp.),] Article 27, § 798(B)(2) and [Baltimore City] Police Department General Order 10-93[3 to protect [petitioners]?

II. Did [respondent Officer] Colbert's affirmative actions and specific promises of protection to Mary and Valerie Williams, which were reasonably relied upon by them, to their detriment, create a special relationship between [respondent] and Mary and Valerie Williams which created a duty of protection on the part of [respondent] Colbert?

III. Were Officer Colbert's actions at 622 Melville Avenue protected by either statutory or common law immunity? Petitioners did not present the dismissal of their complaint against the State or the City in their petition for writ of certiorari to this Court; nor did they present the Court of Special Appeals' decision affirming the dismissal of their complaint against the City. In the proceeding before us, they present only the claims against Officer Colbert.4 We resolve the issues presented in the context of the trial court's granting of Officer Colbert's motion for summary judgment.

I. Facts

The facts and circumstances of the present case are tragic. By July of 1995, eighteen-year-old Valerie Williams had been involved in an abusive relationship with Gerald Watkins for approximately four years. The record indicates that Watkins began beating Valerie Williams when she was around fourteen years old and that the beatings continued while she was pregnant with his child. On numerous occasions, the Baltimore City Police Department was notified and responded to these incidents of domestic violence.

On the morning of July 19, 1995, Mary Williams arrived at work as an office manager for Multi-Specialty Health Care, at approximately 8:45 a.m. Just before her lunch break, she received a frantic telephone call from her daughter, Valerie Williams. Mary Williams immediately left work and drove to her home at 622 Melville Avenue, in Baltimore, where she found her daughter sitting on a sofa with a swollen eye and holding a compress to her mouth. After Valerie Williams told her that she had been beaten by Watkins, Mary Williams telephoned the police via 911. Officer Colbert responded to the call.

Upon arriving at the scene, Officer Colbert took statements from both Mary and Valerie Williams, during which he was informed of the history of abuse suffered by Valerie at the hands of Watkins. Valerie proceeded to inform Officer Colbert that Watkins was a known drug dealer and provided the officer with a photograph of Watkins and his home address. While the officer was talking to the Williamses, Watkins telephoned the household two separate times and talked with both Mary and Valerie. Valerie answered the first telephone call. After she hung up, she told Mary, in the officer's presence, that the call was from Watkins and that he had threatened to come back to the house. When Watkins called a second time, Mary Williams answered the telephone. Upon realizing that the caller was Watkins, Mary Williams briefly expressed her anger to him and then hung up the telephone. The Caller I.D. box indicated that he had called from the Alameda Liquor Store. She reported that fact to Officer Colbert, whereupon he requested a police car to be dispatched to that location. From this point forward, the parties' versions of the events diverge dramatically. We review the depositions of both Mary Williams and Officer Colbert.

According to the deposition of Mary Williams, after Officer Colbert dispatched a police car to the Alameda Liquor Store, he then stated to Valerie "You stay here, I've got to call for a camera, we have to wait for a camera."5 At this point, Mary had a brief conversation with Officer Colbert asking whether she could pick up her grandson from a neighboring house.6 With Officer Colbert's approval, Mary left to retrieve her grandson from the babysitter. Upon returning home, she immediately noticed that Officer Colbert was no longer in the house. When she asked Valerie where he was, she replied, "[h]e said stay here, he went out to the car." Mary Williams, carrying her grandson, then went out the front door of her house and down the steps to the sidewalk where Officer Colbert was sitting in a police car. She asked him, "What's next[?]," to which he replied, "I've got to write this report," followed by "go in the house, I'm going to be here, I've got to finish this report." According to Mary Williams, no further relevant information was exchanged between them.

Mary Williams returned to the house and did not lock the front door. Approximately two to three minutes later, Valerie informed Mary that Watkins had recently been threatening to kill her. Upon hearing this news, Mary panicked and went to the front door to tell Officer Colbert. Mary arrived at the front door to discover that Officer Colbert was no longer parked in front of her house. Instead, she saw Gerald Watkins running up the steps to her home. She tried to shut the door and lock it but Watkins kicked the door open. Carrying her grandson, Mary made it past Watkins and started running down the steps in front of her house. Watkins shot her in the leg, which caused her to fall down the steps. Watkins then put the gun to Mary's head, said "What have I ever done to you?" and pulled the trigger, shooting her again. Watkins then shot and killed Valerie Williams before killing himself. Mary Williams survived the attack but remains partially paralyzed. Myreq Watkins was not injured in the course of the shooting.

Officer Colbert's version of the events is similar to Mary Williams' up until when Mary Williams came outside of her house and had a conversation with the police officer. According to his deposition, when she approached his police car and asked, "What's next?," the following events occurred:

I told her I'm waiting to see if somebody is available to bring me a camera. At that time I called again. There was nobody available to bring a camera. I then told Ms. Williams I have to go get the camera myself, and she said that was fine.

According to Officer Colbert, it was only after this exchange that he drove off to go pick up a camera. He was approximately 6-7 blocks away when he received a call about a shooting at 622 Melville Avenue. Upon his return he found Mary Williams laying face-down on the ground in front of her home and the bodies of Valerie Williams and Gerald Watkins down the street.

On November 6, 1996, petitioners filed a complaint based in negligence in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against (1) the State of Maryland under Maryland Code (1984, 1999 Repl.Vol.), Title 12, subtitle 1, of the State Government Article (the Maryland Tort Claims Act); (2) the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City under Maryland Code (1973, 1998 Repl.Vol., 1999 Cum.Supp.), Title 5, subtitle 3 of the Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article (the Local Government Tort Claims Act); and Baltimore City Police Officer Edward Colbert. The complaint specifically alleged that Baltimore City Police Department General Order 10-93 divested Officer Colbert of any discretion in carrying out his statutory duty to protect Valerie and Mary Williams and Myreq Watkins and mandated that he do so. In later pleadings, petitioners added that Maryland Code (1957, 1993 Repl.Vol., 1995 Cum.Supp.), Article 27, section 11F,7 also supported this argument. The complaint also alleged that Officer Colbert, through his actions and express promise of protection, had established a "special relationship" with petitioners that imposed on him a duty of protection beyond that which he would ordinarily owe to citizens threatened by crime. An order dismissing the complaints against both the City and the State was issued on January 17, 1997, ruling that neither of those parties could be sued because of the provisions of the respective tort claims acts. On February 27, 1998, a different judge on the Circuit Court for Baltimore City entered summary judgment in favor of the police officer. The court ruled that, as a matter of law, Officer Colbert was acting in a discretionary capacity, without malice, at the time of the incident and was therefore...

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