Public Duty Doctrine -- University May be Liable for Student's Death

In a case from 2011, Strickland v. Univ. of N.C. at Wilmington, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that UNC-Wilmington could be held liable for the shooting of a student. The UNC-Wilmington police sought assistance from the Sheriff's office to serve a warrant on the student (who was suspected of a crime). The police reported to the Sheriff that the student was dangerous. The sheriff's department went to the student's residence, heard a noise (which was a battering ram), thought the noise was a gunshot, and shot into the residence, killing the student. The Estate of the student sued the police and the sheriff's department for negligence, in the Industrial Commission. The police argued that it could not be sued pursuant to the "public duty doctrine." This doctrine generally means that a person cannot sue the police where the police merely fail to protect the person from harm. The court held that the doctrine did not apply. This opinion appears to be correct primarily because in this case, the police were not sued for merely failing to protect someone; they were instead sued for their negligence in providing allegedly false information to the sheriff (i.e. that the student was dangerous, which allegedly was not true, and which contributed to the shooting of the student).

The "public duty doctrine" in North Carolina is rather complicated. There is case law, for example, holding that a child can sue the DSS for failing to take measures to protect the child, upon a report of abuse or neglect; and there is authority that the DOT can be sued for failing to erect proper road signs, that leads to an automobile accident.

This website contains other recent North Carolina cases.

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