Skip navigation
× You have 2 more free articles available this month. Subscribe today.

Public Duty Doctrine Discussed; North Carolina’s DHHS Has Duty to Inspect/Protect Prisoners

A North Carolina Court of Appeals has held that the State’s Department of Health and Human Services is not entitled to dismissal of a lawsuit brought on ground DHHS failed to properly train an employee in inspecting County jails and that the employee was negligent in inspecting the Mitchell County Jail (MCJ). In so holding, the Court held the “public duty doctrine” did not apply and, if it did, the special relationship exception to that doctrine applied.

The lawsuit stemmed from a May 3, 2002, fire at MCJ, which claimed the lives of five prisoners and seriously injured another. DHHS moved to dismiss the suit based on the public duty doctrine, which prohibits suits against “state agencies required by statute to conduct inspections for the public’s general protections.” The North Carolina Industrial Commission denied the motion, and DHHS appealed.

The Appeals Court said that two exceptions apply to the public duty doctrine: (1) where there is a special relationship between the injured party and the governmental entity; and (2) when the governmental entity creates a special duty by promising protection to an individual, the protection is not forthcoming, and the individual’s reliance on the promise of protection is causally related to the injury suffered.

The Court said it must look to specific statutes and regulations to make a determination of whether an inspection is for the protection of the general public or for the protection of specified individuals. Under N.C. Gen. Stat. §153A-216 to 222, DHHS has a duty to inspect jails to determine conditions of confinement, treatment of prisoners, and to assure they meet minimum requirements for the purpose of protecting their health and welfare and providing for their humane treatment.”

DHHS’ own regulations allow for the Secretary to “order corrective action, order the jail closed, or enter into an agreement of correction with local officials” when non-compliance the fire plan or fire equipment “jeopardizes the safe custody, safety, health, or welfare of inmates confined in the jail.”

The court held these statutes and regulations create a duty to inspect to protect prisoners and they cannot be construed as a duty to inspect for the benefit of the public or for the public’s general protection.

In the alternative, the Court held that even if the public duty doctrine did apply, precedents establish a special relationship exists when a plaintiff is in police custody. The Court affirmed the denial of DHHS’ motion to dismiss. See: Multiple Claimants v. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 626 S.E. 2d 666 (2006)

As a digital subscriber to Prison Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.

Subscribe today

Already a subscriber? Login

Related legal case

Multiple Claimants v. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services