A Montgomery County police officer Jason Cokinos is back walking the beat after hitting and paralyzing 14-year-old Luis Jovel Jr. Cokinos was speeding to his off-duty job when he hit Jovel and received only a $185 speeding ticket. The county paid $400,000 in damages.
Jovel Jr. was left a quadriplegic with permanent brain damage requiring around-the-clock medical care. The police refuse to say what discipline Cokinos received for the accident, citing state privacy laws.
The case involved a curious legal argument. Cokinos was traveling at 56 miles an hour in a 30-mile-an-hour zone when he hit Jovel — and a police investigation found that had Cokinos not been speeding, he would not have hit Jovel.
A Montgomery County District Court judge, however, found Cokinos not guilty of negligent driving or contributing to an accident. That ruling cannot be ignored and I am not sure of the underlying facts. It is often easy to go 56 miles an hour after losing track of one’s speed. However, a legal question arose as to a state limit on legal liability for local governments. The family was limited to $200,000 per case by a state law — a ridiculously low cap in such cases. They were told that they could not seek more in the case (absent a settlement) because (even though he was off-duty traveling to an off-duty job) he was in his police cruiser and wearing his uniform.
Lt. Paul Starks, spokesman for Montgomery police insisted that the limit on liability was appropriate because “[i]f you are in the [cruiser] you are not considered off duty.” While this interpretation limited liability, it may also have allowed liability for the accident since Cokinos is unlikely to have been able to supply a similar amount in damages.
Even at $400,000 (minus legal fees and costs), this is not going to be enough to support his victim for the rest of his life. The case should also cause far-minded people in Maryland to think about this cap and the harm it causes to families who have seen loved ones killed or severely injured.