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North Carolina Agency Liable in Jail Fire That Killed Five Prisoners

The North Carolina Supreme Court has held that the state’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has a statutorily imposed duty that creates a special relationship to prisoners that makes it liable in a negligence lawsuit.

At the heart of the case is a fire at the Mitchell County Jail (MCJ) on May 3, 2002. Five prisoners died in the fire. It also severely injured another prisoner, who sued along with the estates of the deceased prisoners. The suit contended DHHS and its employee, Ernest Dixon, were responsible for inspecting MCJ “to ensure compliance with certain regulations and to ensure that all fire and safety procedures were in good working order.”

Specific to the Court’s ruling was the allegation that because the injured and deceased prisoners were confined and unable to protect themselves, “a special relationship arose between [DHHS and Dixon] to fulfill the duties imposed under law to ensure that the [prisoners] as a confined individual, would be protected in the event of a fire.” Additionally, “the State promised it would inspect county jails to ensure the protection of inmates in the event of fires.”

Under North Carolina’s public duty doctrine, “a municipality and its agents act for the benefit of the public, and therefore, there is no liability for the failure to furnish police protection to specific individuals.” There are two exceptions to the doctrine: “(1) where there is a special relationship between the injured party and the police,” and “(2) ‘when a municipality, through its police officers, 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 casually related to the injury suffered.’”

To determine whether the “special relationship” exception applies, the Court must assess whether the language of the relevant statutes and regulations clearly mandates a standard of conduct owed by the agency to the complainant. The Supreme Court found that under statutes, DHHS had a duty to “investigate the conditions of confinement, the treatment of prisoners…to determine whether the facilities meet the minimum requirements” for safety, health, and prisoner welfare. Those requirements are to secure prisoners and “to protecting their health and welfare and providing their humane treatment.”

If a correctional facility fails to meet standards regarding the “fire plan” and “fire equipment,” the Secretary has no discretion. In that event, the Secretary “shall notify the local officials responsible for the jail” and “shall order corrective action, order the jail closed, or enter an agreement of correction with local officials.”

Thus, the Court held DHHS has a duty to ensure minimum requirements for prisoner safety are met, and this creates a specials relationship that creates liability. The defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit was denied by the lower court and affirmed. See: Multiple Claimants v. North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, 361 N.C. 372; 646 S.E.2d 356 (N.C. 2007).

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Related legal case

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