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Ability to Sue due to Injuries caused by State Employees interpreted by the North Carolina Supreme Court in Ray v. N.C. Dep’t of Transportation

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The North Carolina Supreme Court in Ray v. N.C. Dep’t of Transp. Determined that the public duty doctrine was not a defense to negligence by state actors unless the injury comes from (1) a police officer’s failure to protect the Plaintiff from third parties or acts of God, or (2) a State officer’s negligent failure to perform a health or safety inspection. The case arose from a tragic accident where the decedent was driving on a state-maintained road with three other individuals in her car. The state-maintained road had an “eroded section” which “caused her vehicle to veer off the roadway.” When she attempted to return to the highway, the erosion caused her to over correct, she lost control, hit an oncoming car in a head-on collision, and the driver and all three of her passengers were killed. After this tragic accident, the estates of the driver and all the passengers sued the North Carolina Department of Transportation (“NCDOT”) for negligence under the State Tort Claims Act (“STCA”). After a number of appeals, it became apparent that the legal issue was how the public duty doctrine affects this type of claim in light of the 2008 amendments to the STCA. The Court found that the legislature intended the public duty doctrine to be limited in scope under the STCA. Using a plain-language method of statutory interpretation of the 2008 STCA amendments, the Court held that “the public duty doctrine is only a defense if the injury alleged is the result of (1) a law enforcement officer’s negligent failure to protect the plaintiff from actions of others or an act of God, or (2) a State officer’s, employee’s, involuntary servant’s, or agent’s negligent failure to perform a health or safety inspection required by statute.” The Court very clearly stated that “in all other cases the public duty doctrine is unavailable to the State as a defense.” The relevant text of the amendments is as follows: (a) Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, the public duty doctrine is an affirmative defense on the part of the State department, institution, or agency against which a claim is asserted if and only if the injury of the claimant is the result of any of the following: (1) The alleged negligent failure to protect the claimant from the action of others or from an act of God by a law enforcement officer as defined in subsection (d) of this section.(2) The alleged negligent failure of an officer, employee, involuntary servant or agent of the State to perform a health or safety inspection required by statute. (b) Notwithstanding subsection (a) of this section, the affirmative defense of the public duty doctrine may not be asserted in any of the following instances: (1) Where there is a special relationship between the claimant and the officer, employee, involuntary servant or agent of the State.(2) When the State, through its officers, employees, involuntary servants or agents, has created a special duty owed to the claimant and the claimant’s reliance on that duty is causally related to the injury suffered by the claimant.(3) Where the alleged failure to perform a health or safety inspection required by statute was the result of gross negligence. The Court further found that, since the legislature was essentially codifying existing case law with the amendments, the 2008 amendments were clarifying amendments, rather than substantive-law altering amendments. Therefore, the Court found that the amendments apply to all claims pending or brought before the State’s courts after the amendments passage (October 1, 2008). As applied to the case at bar, the Court’s interpretation of the 2008 STCA amendments did not bar any of the Plaintiffs’ claims. Plaintiffs’ claims for negligent design and execution of the narrowing of the roadway, and Plaintiffs’ claims for negligent failure to repair the roadway are not barred by any interpretation of the public duty doctrine. However, Plaintiffs claims that the NCDOT should have known of the defect “amounts to a claim that DOT negligently failed to inspect the roadway” could conceivably be barred by N.C.G.S. § 143-299.1A(a)(2)(negligent failure to inspect). However, the Court found that the failure to inspect claim could move forward under N.C.G.S. § 143-299.1A(b)(3) because “the passage of a substantial period of time since development of the defect … gives rise in this case to the inference that DOT intentionally avoided [the road].” That inference was sufficient to support a claim for gross negligence at the motion to dismiss stage of proceedings. By limiting the public duty affirmative defense to only two specific situations, the NC Supreme Court shut the door to the State’s creative use of the doctrine to limit its liability. Ultimately this case strengthens the claims of parties injured by the State. If you have been injured by a State Employee please contact us today at O'Malley Tunstall to discuss your claim.


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