In a recent North Carolina appellate decision, the defendants appealed from a motion to dismiss on the basis of public official immunity. A child and his mother sued the defendants for negligence, gross negligence, negligent infliction of emotional distress, medical malpractice, and punitive damages. They alleged that after the child was born, the defendants, who were employees of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, followed screening procedures for newborns that they knew wouldn’t be sufficient for older infants. As a result, they missed diagnosing a metabolism error in the child that later resulted in an emergency that caused him permanent, severe brain damage.
The defendants moved to dismiss and strike, claiming that the court couldn’t hear the lawsuit because they were being sued as government employees, and the State hadn’t waived sovereign immunity, so as public officials, they were entitled to immunities provided to public officials.
On the hearing date, the plaintiffs argued that they’d amended the complaint to show they were suing the defendants as individuals rather than as public officials. The court granted the plaintiffs’ amended motion to amend their complaint again. It denied the motions to dismiss. The plaintiffs amended their complaint, and the defendants answered. They appealed the orders denying the dismissals.
On appeal, they argued that they were immune from being sued because they were public officials rather than employees. They claimed they were allowed to immediately appeal the order under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-277(a) and because denying their motions to dismiss on the basis of public official immunity affected a substantial right. They argued that their valid claim of immunity was something more than just a defense, and if the case went to trial, their immunity would be lost.
The appellate court reasoned that the dismissal of the appeal for lack of jurisdiction was appropriate. The defendants had labeled their immunity defenses as having to do with subject matter jurisdiction because they were being sued as officials, and the State hadn’t waived immunity, the plaintiffs didn’t plead that they’d waived their immunity, and they deserved all of the immunities that public officials have. They also moved on the basis that they didn’t owe a duty to the plaintiffs, the negligence claims were really claims for medical malpractice, and the medical malpractice claims didn’t state a doctor-patient relationship.
The defendants had said they just wanted to move forward with the motion to dismiss on the basis of subject matter and for failure to state a claim. They withdrew the rest of their motions. The plaintiff’s motion was granted because it made clear that the defendants were being sued as individuals. The defendant’s motion to dismiss was moot as to subject matter jurisdiction for that reason, and the defense attorney seemed to agree.
The appellate court noted that the defendants’ immunity arguments were decided only as motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The appellate court held this was an interlocutory denial that wasn’t immediately appealable. The defendant had argued the motions to dismiss were based on claims of sovereign immunity as public officials, but nothing in the record supported that the defendants had argued this at the time. They only argued that the plaintiff’s failure to state a claim had to do with their lack of duty toward the plaintiff. The appeal was dismissed.
If you or your child 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 919-229-8359 or via our online form.
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