Baltimore, MD – A federal judge ruled on Thursday that a lawsuit against the city by small-business owners affected by the 2015 Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore should be decided by a jury.
U.S. District Judge Stephanie Gallagher’s ruling set the stage for the lawsuit – which has been pending for four years – to move forward to trial or to settle, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The lawsuit was brought by almost 70 plaintiffs who have alleged the city fell short of its obligations to protect them under the Maryland Riot Act during the unrest that followed Gray’s death in the custody of the Baltimore police.
The plaintiffs are almost all small-business owners whose stores were burned or vandalized during the riots, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Some of the store owners were attacked during the unrest and suffered injuries, according to the lawsuit.
The owners of Fireside North Liquors were both seriously injured during the riots, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The lawsuit said that one of the store’s owners was beaten and robbed at the West North Avenue location.
Another owner was hurt jumping to escape the fire when rioters set the business ablaze, The Baltimore Sun reported.
The lawsuit alleged that the city told BPD officers to stand down and worry first about protecting the First Amendment rights of the demonstrators, putting their livelihoods and property in jeopardy.
“Even in locations where [BPD] officers were present, business owners helplessly watched their stores being looted and destroyed as [BPD] officers also simply watched and/or turned away, and let the destruction of property continue,” the complaint read.
Lawyers for the city have argued that Baltimore police did a reasonably good job handling the unrest, as compared to the destruction in other cities like Minneapolis and Ferguson, Missouri, The Baltimore Sun reported.
“Despite being under-equipped and understaffed as a result of the State and other jurisdictions refusing its requests for assistance in the days leading up to the funeral, BPD managed to suppress the unrest in approximately twelve hours, with no loss of civilian or officer life,” lawyers for the city claimed in their filings.
The attorneys said the criticism of the mayor’s handling of the police department throughout the unrest was “Monday morning quarterbacking.”
They claimed the burning and looting of entire blocks of the city wasn’t a riot but rather, “individuals opportunistically taking advantage of unrest in order to commit crimes and property destruction,” The Baltimore Sun reported.
But the judge said on Aug. 26 that the requirements of the Riot Act were “not one of overall reasonableness or of good policy.”
Gallagher said the question was whether Baltimore officials took action to prevent “theft, damage or destruction,” The Baltimore Sun reported.
“The City may ultimately be right that it acted reasonably as a matter of overall policy and prioritization, and a reasonable juror could certainly agree,” she wrote. “However, a reasonable juror could also (and perhaps simultaneously) conclude that the City remains liable for the ensuing property damage arguably attributable to the ‘trade-off’ between more traditional anti-riot measures and the City’s policy decisions in April of 2015.”
The judge pointed out that the city had heard “talk of a riot” starting the day Gray died in police custody and coordinated with the police department, The Baltimore Sun reported.
“The City instructed the BPD that it did not want the BPD’s response to appear ‘overly aggressive,’ and that the BPD should prioritize protecting the protesters and their First Amendment rights,” Gallagher wrote in her ruling. “In the lead-up to the April 25th protests, the City remained focused on ensuring that the BPD not ‘silenc[e]’ protesters or ‘interfere[e] with their First Amendment rights.’”
Earlier this year, the city blamed Maryland Governor Larry Hogan for having ignored their requests for help and sought to have the lawsuit thrown out on those grounds, The Baltimore Sun reported.
Attorneys for Baltimore claimed the governor ignored requests for state police and National Guard help.
But Hogan said it was the mayor who downplayed the riot, The Baltimore Sun reported.
He said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told him at the time that she wasn’t worried that anything was going to happen.
The governor also said that Baltimore police told Maryland State Police they didn’t have any issues when they were asked if they needed state assistance, The Baltimore Sun reported.
“The unmistakable message, delivered to me directly and through the media, was that the city had everything under control,” Hogan wrote in his biography in 2020.
The Maryland Riot Act was enacted in 1835 after a bank failure caused a riot that killed at least five people, The Baltimore Sun reported.
According to the law, anyone whose property is “taken away, injured or destroyed by any riotous or tumultuous assemblage of people” may sue the jurisdiction where “such riot or tumult occurred” to recover damages.
The judge also scolded the city for having tried for a third time to limit the plaintiffs’ claims under the Local Government Tort Claims Act, which caps claims against a local government at $200,000 per individual claim or $500,000 for claims stemming from a single incident, The Baltimore Sun reported.
“The City waited nearly two and a half years from the Court’s denial of its motion for reconsideration… The City offers no justification for that delay, and, accordingly, the Court finds it to be unreasonable,” she wrote.
U.S. District Judge George L. Russell III had previously ruled that the law said plaintiffs in a Riot Act lawsuit could recover damages without exception, according to The Baltimore Sun.
The Riot Act hasn’t been used since businesses sued the city following the riots after Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot.