Public Official Immunity in North Carolina

In a recent North Carolina injury decision, the defendant doctors appealed the lower court’s denial of their motions to dismiss based on grounds of public official immunity. The plaintiff started his case against the defendants in their individual capacities and also claimed that the doctors (both employed by the Department of Public Safety) were negligent.

The claims alleged the doctors hadn’t met the professional standard of care for doctors when treating the incarcerated plaintiff. He claimed he started suffering serious back pain in 2012, and he turned in the first of multiple requests for medical care. For 10 months, nurses, the doctor’s assistants, and a doctor repeatedly evaluated him for his back pain. One of the doctors evaluated him nine times and asked for an MRI to be done. A member of the review board, also a doctor, denied the request for an MRI and instead recommended a month of physical therapy. The plaintiff kept submitting requests as he got worse.

Eventually, a doctor’s assistant sent the plaintiff to the ER for treatment. There, imaging showed that the plaintiff’s L3-L4 vertebra had eroded and that he had a spinal infection. The plaintiff claimed that it was medical malpractice for his doctor to fail to treat his condition and for the board member to refuse the requested treatment.

In response, the doctor moved to dismiss, claiming he was entitled to public official immunity. The board member did the same. The court denied the motions to dismiss, and the defendants appealed.

The appellate court reasoned that public official immunity prevents lawsuits against public officials in their individual capacities, shielding them from liability, when the public official legally uses discretion and judgment with which he’s invested through his office, stays within the scope of his official authority, and acts without malice or corruption. According to the North Carolina Supreme Court, public officials are immunized because it would be challenging to find anyone to accept public office or administer public affairs if they could be held personally accountable for conduct that required their discretion.

In this case, the parties agreed there weren’t allegations that the defendants behaved outside the scope of their authority or that they acted with malice or corruption. The only question on appeal was whether they counted as public officials who should not be personally accountable due to the public immunity doctrine.

The appellate court explained that when someone who works for the government is sued, courts make a distinction between public employees and public officials in deciding liability for negligence. Courts have previously held that public offices are those created by statute or constitution, and a public official uses some sovereign power and discretion. In contrast, public employees perform ministerial tasks. Officers must swear an oath for their jobs, while employees and agents need not.

The defendants claimed they’d been chosen to carry out the Department’s constitutional and statutory duty to give medical care to inmates. They argued they were public officials and weren’t public employees.

The appellate court disagreed. It noted that the defendants hadn’t been able to point out statutory or constitutional sections that created their jobs. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 162-22 gives sheriffs the duty to operate the jail and the power to appoint a keeper. However, no explicit statutory basis authorized the jobs of the defendants.

The State can’t escape liability by delegating its duty to provide health care to a physician. The Department was statutorily created and owed a duty to provide health services. The defendants claimed this duty was delegated to them but couldn’t point out statutory provisions to this effect. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision not to dismiss based on asserting public official immunity.

If you suffered injuries due to the wrongful conduct or negligence of another party, the experienced North Carolina personal injury attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 888-258-1087 or via our online form.

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