John M. Kirby
Ray v. NC DOT -- Tort Claims Act -- Public Duty Doctrine
A person injured by the negligence of an agent of the State of North Carolina can pursue an action in the North Carolina Industrial Commission, under the Tort Claims Act. Absent this Act, the State would be entitled to Governmental Immunity.
Notwithstanding that the State has waived suits for negligence in the IC, the State can still sometimes rely on a defense called the "public duty doctrine." The classic application of this doctrine holds that, for example, a City is not liable if the police department fails to protect a member of the public from harm from a third person (e.g. an assailant). The parameters of this defense, however, are not clear.
In a recent case, Ray v. NCDOT (June 14, 2012), a motorist encountered a portion of pavement that had eroded, and the vehicle went off the roadway. The vehicle then crossed the center line, and collided with another vehicle. Several people were killed as a result. Their Estates sued the State, due to alleged negligence of the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT). They argued that the State failed to properly maintain the roadway, and that this caused the accident. The State argued that the Public Duty Doctrine barred the claim, and the State prevailed in the IC. The Court of Appeals reversed.
In June 2012 the North Carolina Supreme Court, in a split decision, affirmed the lower court's decision, and held that the plaintiff's claim could go forward. The Court looked largely at recent legislation (N.C. General Statute 143-299.1A), which largely codified the prior case-made law regarding the doctrine. The majority held that this enactment "clarified" the prior law, and in effect applied the statute retroactively. The statute states that the doctrine applies only if "(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 [or] (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." [There are other exceptions to the doctrine where there is a special duty, special relationship, or gross negligence.]
This website contains other recent North Carolina cases.