In some cases, a slip and fall or another accident takes place on government property, such as a school or a public park. Although private landowners are usually required to keep their property reasonably free of dangers for lawful visitors or else provide warnings, different rules apply when the property owner is a local or state government entity. The doctrine of sovereign immunity shields governmental entities from being sued for their negligence, even if they are clearly at fault, except when the entity has waived its immunity from suit.
The North Carolina Tort Claims Act provides the exceptions to sovereign immunity from tort claims. It allows recovery for injuries caused by the negligence of state officers, employees, or agents who are acting within the scope of their duties in situations that would make the state liable if it were a private individual. However, the Tort Claims Act doesn’t waive immunity for a state employee’s intentional misconduct. Moreover, as with lawsuits against private individuals, a plaintiff’s contributory negligence completely bars his ability to recover damages.
Governmental immunity shields local governments, such as cities, from injuries caused by employees in the scope of their duties when they are performing “governmental functions.” However, it doesn’t protect local governments from tort claims based on an employee’s performance of proprietary functions. Factors that may show whether a governmental actor was acting in the scope of proprietary or governmental powers include whether the activity was one typically provided by a particular entity, if the actions were ones in which only a governmental entity could engage, whether a substantial fee had been charged, and whether a profit had been turned.
In Bellows v. Asheville City Board of Education, the plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in connection with a fall that Gaillard Bellows took from her wheelchair while on the grounds of a high school. She and her husband sued for negligence, willful negligence, and loss of consortium. The defendants moved to dismiss, based on failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted and sovereign immunity grounds, and the trial court denied the motion. The defendants appealed.
The only part of the ruling that was reviewed was the ruling related to sovereign immunity. The appellate court agreed that the trial court had erred in denying the Board’s motion to dismiss. The North Carolina Supreme Court had ruled that the defense of sovereign immunity depends on the nature of the work done by the relevant governmental unit. Immunity only applied to governmental functions, rather than proprietary functions.
The court explained that N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 115C-40 and -521(c) allow several boards of education to own and control all of the property of a school, including real property. The boards are entrusted with the maintenance and care of the grounds.
Specifically, § 115C-40 authorizes boards of education to hold school property, purchase and transfer it, and build or repair schoolhouses, among other things. § 115C-521(c) provides the board with authority to control and direct the building and repairing. Based on these statutes, the function performed by the Board in this case was governmental. The appellate court reversed the denial of the Board’s motion to dismiss.
If you were injured by a dangerous condition on government property, the experienced premises liability attorneys at Maurer Law may be able to help you recover compensation. Contact us at 919-229-8359 or via our online form.
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