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Utah Potentially Liable for Juvenile’s Death; Incarceration Exception to State’s Immunity Inapplicable

The Utah Supreme Court has that the “incarceration exception” to the state’s waiver of sovereign immunity does not apply to a juvenile offender’s placement in an unsecured community-based proctor home.

Sixteen-year-old Dillon Whitney was charged with several crimes and adjudicated a juvenile delinquent. The trial court ordered the Division of Juvenile Justice Services to transfer Dillon to a community-based placement, during which time he was not allowed to stay with either of his parents.

Dillon was sent to Quest Youth Services, which placed him “in the community-based proctor home of H. Kaufusi. Dillon lived in the basement of the proctor home with another proctor teen, while Kaufusi lived upstairs with his two children.”

Dillon and the other proctor teenager were allowed to come and go at will and roam freely in the community.

After an approved Thanksgiving family visit with his father in November 2007, Dillon went to the apartment of Victor Hernandez instead of returning to his proctor home.

While at Hernandez’s apartment, Dillon got drunk, fell down a flight of stairs and was placed on a couch. The next morning, Hernandez believed that Dillon was dead and moved him to a stairwell.

Dillon was not dead, however, and neighbors called for help. Unfortunately, while en route to the hospital, Dillon died from injuries sustained in the fall. Although he had not returned to his proctor home following his approved Thanksgiving visit, no state or Quest employees had tried to find him.

Dillon’s parents filed a state negligence action against the Division of Juvenile Justice Services, the State of Utah, Quest Youth Services and other defendants. The defendants removed the action to federal court and filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that they were immune under the “incarceration exception” to Utah’s Governmental Immunity Act.

After the district court denied the motion, the defendants filed an interlocutory appeal. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals asked the Utah Supreme Court to answer a certified question as to whether the incarceration exception to Utah’s waiver of sovereign immunity applied.

The state Supreme Court ultimately held that “a juvenile who is placed in an unsecured community-based proctor home is not incarcerated in a place of legal confinement.
Accordingly, the incarceration exception to the State’s waiver of its sovereign immunity does not apply and the State remains potentially liable for damages related to Dillon Whitney’s death.” See: Whitney v. Division of Juvenile Justice Services, 274 P.3d 906 (Utah 2012).

Based on the Utah Supreme Court’s ruling, the Tenth Circuit held on April 6, 2012 that the incarceration exception did not apply, and that the state had waived its alternate argument that Dillon’s death arose from his incarceration “at other place[s] of legal confinement,” such as juvenile facilities, because the state had failed to raise that argument before the district court. See: Whitney v. Division of Juvenile Justice Services, 468 Fed.Appx. 871 (10th Cir. 2012) (unpublished).

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Whitney v. Division of Juvenile Justice Services

Whitney v. Division of Juvenile Justice Services