North Carolina Court Affirms Denial of Public Official Immunity in Medical Negligence Case

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Generally, when one person’s negligence results in an injury to another person, the negligent party can be held liable for damages such as medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering.

However, when the individual who was allegedly negligent is a government employee, this is not necessarily so. In some such cases, the person may be immune from suit through an extension of the doctrine of sovereign immunity for public officials. This does not necessarily mean that the injured person is without a remedy – it may be possible to sue the government directly, if certain conditions are met – but it can be an unwelcome complication in an otherwise straightforward case (and yet another reason to seek the advice of an attorney sooner, rather than later, so that the issues can be properly addressed).

Facts of the Case

In a recent North Carolina injury case originating in Cumberland County Superior Court, the plaintiff was a department of adult corrections (DAC) inmate who filed a medical negligence lawsuit against the defendant doctors in May 2016, asserting that one of the doctors had failed to adequately evaluate and treat his condition and that the other had refused to administer certain medical treatment requested by the plaintiff. The defendants, who at all times relevant to the plaintiff’s complaint were employed by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, filed a motion to dismiss the claims against them, based on public official immunity. The trial court denied the defendants’ motion, and they appealed.

Decision on Appeal

The Court of Appeals of North Carolina affirmed the trial court’s order denying the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground of public official immunity. First noting that the defendants’ appeal was interlocutory in nature because the trial court’s order did not dispose of the case, the court found that the defendants were entitled to seek a review of the trial court’s decision because orders denying a dispositive motion based on public official immunity affect a substantial right and are hence appealable immediately. They also recognized that one defendant had challenged the trial court’s personal jurisdiction over him and found that this issue was also subject to review by the court.

The court then explained that, while public official immunity does preclude suit against public officials sued in their individual capacities (and from liability in such cases), this immunity only applies in situations in which a public officer lawfully exercised the judgment and discretion in which he or she was vested by virtue of his or her office. Furthermore, in order for immunity to apply, the defendant must have kept within the scope of his or her official immunity and acted without malice or corruption.

The parties agreed that there were no allegations to the effect that the defendants had acted outside their authority or with malice or corruption, so the sole question was whether the defendants were immune from suit in their individual capacities. Although the defendants insisted they were immune from suit because they  had been delegated, and were carrying out, the constitutional and statutory duty to provide health services to the plaintiff (and other incarcerated inmates like him), the court disagreed. The DAC did have a duty to provide health services, but the defendants pointed to no statutory provisions delegating that authority to them. Although the DAC chose to employ the defendants to help it carry out its duty to provide health services, the court found that this was not a “delegation” that would have made the defendants immune from suit.

Speak to a Raleigh Personal Injury Lawyer

If you believe that you or a loved one has been injured by the negligence of an individual, business, or governmental entity, you should talk to an attorney about the possibility of filing a claim to seek compensation for what you have been through. To schedule a free consultation with an experienced Raleigh injury attorney, call Nagle & Associates at 800-411-1583. We represent clients throughout North Carolina.

Related Blog Posts:

North Carolina Court Holds that Patient Asserted Claim of Ordinary Negligence, Not Medical Malpractice – But Failed to Perfect Service of Process on Medical Center

North Carolina Appellate Court Says Basketball Referee’s Negligence Claim Against School Board is Barred by Statutory Immunity

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