High court holds officers liable in Catonsville suit

March 05, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for a Catonsville couple to collect $185,000 in damages against two Baltimore County police officers for failing to take steps to prevent a jail inmate's suicide.

Without comment, the court turned aside an appeal by the two officers, Donald Gaigalas and Ronald L. Tucker, claiming legal immunity to any damages. The county has said it will pay the damages assessed against the officers, as well as the attorneys' fees and costs of the family in suing the officers.

At the same time, the Supreme Court also refused to hear a plea by the dead man's parents, Barbara and David M. Buffington of Catonsville, seeking to reinstate a damage claim against Baltimore County itself and against the county's police chief, Cornelius J. Behan.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the damages award against the two officers last July, but it said the county and Chief Behan could not be held liable for the suicide of James E. Buffington at the Wilkens Precinct police station on March 19, 1987.

Because the Circuit Court upheld the award only against the officers, it told U.S. District Judge Joseph C. Howard of Baltimore to recalculate his earlier award of $430,658.78 in attorneys' fees and expenses to the family lawyers, William F. Gately and Daniel W. Whitney of Baltimore.

Judge Howard is to hold a trial in April on criminal contempt charges against two lawyers for the county accused of concealing the statements of witnesses in the case.

The judge is also considering a prosecutor's plea to add additionalcharges against the county's lawyers.

The Buffington case grew out of events four years ago this month, when James Buffington, who was known to his family to be emotionally troubled, was found to have left a suicide note in the family home after he had left the home with a gun.

A brother, David, who lived next door, called the county police and urged them to find Mr. Buffington. He was found and was taken to the Wilkens Precinct station. After being held for a time ++ handcuffed to a rail, he was placed in a cell there. Not long afterward, he was found hanged from the bars, with a noose fashioned out of his trousers.

Officers Gaigalas and Tucker were on duty as desk officers when Mr. Buffington was placed in the jail cell.

The parents sued the county, Chief Behan, Officers Gaigalas and Tucker and five other police officers at the Wilkens lockup. A jury awarded $185,000 in damages against the county, Chief Behan and Officers Gaigalas and Tucker.

The award remains the same even though the county and Chief Behan were dropped from the case.

The jury rejected a claim that there was a conspiracy to cover up the police investigation of the suicide.

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