A special relationship existed between the state’s jail safety inspectors and inmates killed or injured in a 2002 Mitchell County fire, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled June 28.
The decision should allow a negligence claim against the state to push forward.
One survivor and the families of four of the eight inmates killed in the blaze filed the suit in 2003. They alleged that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services failed to properly inspect and enforce the jail’s fire safety conditions as required by statute.
The Attorney General’s office tried to block the suit by invoking the public duty doctrine, which provides that a government agency acts for the benefit of the public and cannot be held liable for failing to protect specific individuals.
The high court rejected this argument by holding that the special relationship exception to the public duty doctrine applied.
Statutes imposed inspection duties on the state specifically for the purpose of protecting a class of individuals who could not protect themselves — the inmates, Justice Patricia A. Timmons-Goodson wrote for the majority. The decision affirmed a 2003 ruling by the Industrial Commission.
As in the Court of Appeals’ 2006 decision, there was a dissent. Chief Justice Sarah Parker — joined by Justice Edward Thomas Brady — argued that the primary responsibility for jail safety fell on the county government and not on the state.
“The legislature did not intend to make the state a ‘virtual guarantor’ of the safety of every confinement facility subject to its inspection, thereby exposing it to an overwhelming burden of liability,” Parker wrote.
The case is Multiple Claimants v. N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services (North Carolina Lawyers Weekly No. 07-07-0819, 22 pages).
This was “not a breakthrough decision,” said Benjamin E. Baker Jr., an attorney based in Montgomery, Ala. Baker handled the appeal on behalf of his clients — the estates of Mark Thomas and Jesse Davis — and the other plaintiffs in the case.
Baker said he argued for the high court to merely apply case law that has developed since the state first adopted the public duty doctrine for law enforcement in Braswell v. Braswell, 330 N.C. 363 (1991), and extended it to state government agencies in Stone v. N.C. Dept. of Labor, 347 N.C. 473 (1998).
There are two exceptions to the doctrine: Either a “special relationship” exists, or there is “special duty” created by a promise to a specific individual.
Those exceptions can be applied to “a particular class of individuals,” according to Myers v. McGrady, 360 N.C. 460 (2006).
The high court majority seized on Hunt v. N.C. Dept. of Labor, 348 N.C. 192 (1998) — an opinion that Parker wrote — in which the court found that a statute requiring the state to inspect go-karts did not impose a duty upon the state to each go-kart customer.
“Hunt instructs us to assess whether the language of the relevant statutes and regulations clearly mandates a standard of conduct owed by an agency to the complainant,” Timmons-Goodson said.
Chapter 153A of the General Statutes provided the regulatory language at issue in Multiple Claimants, and it clearly established a duty of care to the inmates, the majority said.
The statutes were crafted for the purpose of making sure that local jails complied with “minimum standards” for the safe and humane confinement of inmates, including standards regarding a “fire plan” and “fire equipment.”
If inspectors found that the jail did not meet these minimum standards, and that the noncompliance “jeopardize[d] the safe custody, safety, health or welfare of inmates confined in the jail,” then inspectors were required to notify local officials that the conditions needed to be fixed or else the jail would be closed.
“Thus, a special relationship exists between DHHS and the inmates because DHHS has a statutory duty to inspect jails to ensure their compliance with minimum standards for fire safety,” Timmons-Goodson said.
In her dissenting opinion, Parker said Chapter 153A merely gave state inspectors the “limited advisory and educational role in assisting a local government.
“None of the statutes can reasonably be construed to establish a ‘special relationship,’ giving rise to an individual right to recovery” between the state and the Mitchell County jail inmates, Parker said.
Baker said that same line of reasoning had been explored and rebuffed in arguments before the Industrial Commission and Court of Appeals.
“Our response was that the county can’t respond if the state does not provide the county with information or perform proper inspections,” Baker said.
The fire occurred in the small town of Bakersville in May 2002 when a space heater ignited a stack of cardboard boxes in a wooden storage area behind the 47-year-old jail.
Eight of the jail’s 17 inmates — many of whom were serving time for misdemeanors — died from smoke inhalation, making it the deadliest jail fire in state history, according to the Associated Press.
No criminal negligence charges were filed in the case, although the N.C. Department of Labor fined the Mitchell County government for several code violations in late 2002, including the failure to abide by fire safety rules. The department also criticized the state’s jail inspectors for missing the violations before the fire.
The families of all 17 inmates reached a $1.94 million settlement with the county in 2003.
In filing the lawsuit against the state, in which damages would be capped at $500,000 per claim, the families of the victims are hoping to reach “closure,” Baker said.
By pushing the case past the pleadings stage, he said, the Supreme Court decision should allow for depositions of key figures — such as the county’s sheriff and jailer.
“Our clients want to know what happened on the night of the fire,” Baker said. “One of my clients, his son [Mark Thomas, age 20 at the time] was spending the night in jail on a DUI. He was a good kid. And his family, to this day, doesn’t know what happened, because everybody has been so tight-lipped on the subject.
“They want to find out what happened to their loved ones. Right now, they don’t know.”
A key piece of evidence — and the likely subject of another court challenge — is an SBI report on the fire, Baker said.
The report is not a public record, although the SBI could release the report if ordered to do so by a court.
Baker said he hopes to see the case go before the Industrial Commission in Asheville by the end of this year or early next year.
The Attorney General’s office could not comment on the decision, spokesperson Jennifer Canada said. The office’s attorneys are reviewing the Supreme Court’s ruling, and no decision has been made about how to proceed.
— Questions or comments may be directed to [email protected].
Tracing the public duty doctrine…
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Multiple Claimants v. N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services was the latest in a string of cases in which the high court has ruled on the public duty doctrine. Here are some of the most noteworthy decisions:
Braswell v. Braswell, 330 N.C. 363 (1991): Adopted the public duty doctrine as an exception to the state tort claims act and said it barred claims against a county over a sheriff’s allegedly negligent protection of the plaintiff’s mother from his father.
Stone v. N.C. Dept. of Labor, 347 N.C. 473 (1998): Held that the public duty rule barred a claim against the state labor department for breaching its statutory duty to inspect a food products plant in Hamlet.
Hunt v. N.C. Dept. of Labor, 348 N.C. 192 (1999): In this case, the public duty doctrine preempted a suit over a department’s approval of amusement park go-karts even though their seat belts allegedly didn’t comply with state law.
Lovelace v. City of Shelby, 351 N.C. 458 (2000): The Supreme Court declined to extend the public duty doctrine to a plaintiff’s claim against a municipality for negligent dispatch of fire-fighting personnel to the plaintiff’s home.
Thompson v. Waters, 351 N.C. 458 (2000): The justices refused to extend the public duty doctrine to a county for an allegedly negligent inspection of a private home.
Myers v. McGrady, 360 N.C. 460 (2006): The state’s division of forest resources could raise the public duty doctrine against claims that a forest ranger’s failure to put out a fire or warn motorists about smoke triggered a fatal chain collision, the court held.