Brooks v. Martin, et al. – Overcoming Governmental Immunity Defense

The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s decision to dismiss a complaint brought by a woman seriously injured when a police officer negligently collided with her at an intersection.
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While such action seems inherently unfair, it’s an illustration of the principle of sovereign immunity, which can shield government entities and employees from legal responsibility for harm caused.

However, our Asheville personal injury attorneys recognize this protection is not without limit, and there are circumstances under which a person can successfully bring suit against the government or its workers. Such a case should not be pursued unless it has been carefully reviewed by an experienced injury lawyer.

In the recent instance, Brooks v. Martin, et al., plaintiff alleged she was driving her car in Lillington when she approached a red light. She stopped for the signal, and while she waited, an on-duty sheriff’s deputy negligently rear-ended her vehicle. The deputy was operating his patrol car. The impact caused the plaintiff to suffer serious injury.

Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the deputy and the county, seeking damages. The county responded with a motion to dismiss, asserting sovereign immunity. The plaintiff then filed a motion for leave to amend her complaint to include, among other elements, that the county waived its immunity when it purchased liability insurance. Further, the amended complaint made clear she was suing the deputy not only in his personal capacity, but individually as well.

The trial judge denied the plaintiff’s motion for leave, and granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. Plaintiff appealed. Although she conceded her initial complaint failed to allege a waiver of the county’s governmental immunity, she insisted her amended complaint would reveal a waiver of immunity, through the purchase of liability insurance.

The appellate court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s refusal to grant leave to amend. The court noted the accident giving rise to the action occurred nearly three years before the complaint was filed. (North Carolina has a three-year statute of limitations on injury claims.) Beyond that, the plaintiff had 21 days to cure any defects in the complaint. She waited until 17 days after that deadline. The court found plaintiff offered no good faith explanation as to why she was unable to amend the complaint sooner.

Regarding the complaint against the deputy, the court relied on the same reasoning, and the fact that the original complaint did not indicate she would be pursuing action against him outside his official capacity. Although the plaintiff pointed to italicized language in her complaint – specifically, the phrase “acting individually” – the court indicated this “falls well short of the specificity required to designate that he was sued in his individual capacity.”

These are careful considerations that must be made prior to filing a lawsuit. It’s possible that had the action been properly filed and pursued sooner, the woman may have had a strong case in which to overcome governmental immunity.

Police officers aren’t the only workers covered under this theory. Any government worker can seek these protections, including school teachers and, in some cases, even doctors or nurses at a government-funded hospital. It’s important for injured parties to seek legal assistance as soon as possible after an injury so the options can be fully explored.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Brooks v. Martin, et al., Aug. 5, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Brouwer v. Sisters of Charity Providence: The Common Knowledge Exception to the Expert Witness Requirement in South Carolina, Aug. 15, 2014, Asheville Personal Injury Lawyer Blog

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