Lawsuits against the government or public officials can be much more challenging than similar claims against individuals or private businesses. This is because the doctrine of sovereign immunity protects the government from liability except in cases in which liability is expressly waived.
This is based on a holdover from the old English common law, under which “the king could do no wrong.”
Facts of the Case
In a recently decided appellate case, the plaintiff was a deputy sheriff who enrolled in a training course offered by the defendant college and taught by the defendant firearms instructor. According to the plaintiff, he was shot when the instructor pulled the trigger of another student’s firearm while helping her break down her weapon. The plaintiff filed suit in superior court, asserting claims of negligence, gross negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress against the instructor. He further alleged that the college was liable for the instructor’s torts under the doctrine of respondeat superior.
The plaintiff dismissed his superior court claims against the college (and its board of trustees, who were also named as defendants), having also asserted those claims in a separate action pending before the North Carolina Industrial Commission pursuant to the tort claims act. The instructor filed a motion to dismiss the superior court claims against him in his official capacity and individually, alleging that the court lacked jurisdiction, that the plaintiff had failed to state a claim, that the instructor should not have been sued in his individual capacity, and that he was entitled to sovereign immunity. The superior court denied the instructor’s motion, and he appealed.
What the Court Held
The court affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded. The court first noted that, since the denial of the defendant instructor’s motion to dismiss on the basis of sovereign immunity affected a substantial right, the lower court’s decision was immediately appealable – and thus properly before the court. The court then agreed with the instructor that he was entitled to sovereign immunity as to any claim asserted against him in his official capacity and that the plaintiff’s claim had to be asserted before the commission under the tort claims act.
As to the plaintiff’s claims against the defendant in his individual capacity, the court noted that, while he was employed as an active duty police officer, he was working for – and employed by – the college as an instructor when the shooting occurred. Even if he were to be considered a public official in this position, however, the plaintiff’s complaint pleaded sufficient allegations to allow the matter to proceed against the defendant individually. Specifically, the court noted that the defendant – an experienced officer and certified instructor – had pulled the trigger of a loaded deadly weapon while it was pointed at the plaintiff’s abdomen. Construed liberally, this was enough to pierce the defendant instructor’s public official immunity.
Need to Talk to a Raleigh Injury Lawyer?
If you have been a victim of an accident, you must file a claim within the time allowed by law and prove your case in a court of law. To schedule a consultation about your Raleigh personal injury case, call Nagle & Associates at 800-411-1583 and ask for a complimentary case evaluation. We serve clients throughout the greater Raleigh area, as well as elsewhere in North Carolina.
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