NC Supreme Court Confirms Application of Sovereign Immunity for Local Governments

by Poyner Spruill LLP

Wilson County was found to have immunity from negligence claims for a visitor’s injuries sustained while he exited the county administrative building according to the North Carolina Supreme Court in a June 12, 2014 opinion.  In Bynum v. Wilson County, Mr. Bynum visited the Wilson County administrative building to pay his water bill.  This office building housed several county departments and divisions and was open to the public.  After paying his water bill and while on his way out of the building, Mr. Bynum fell down the stairs and was injured.  He filed suit against the County (and the owner of the building, which leased it to the County), asserting a claim for negligence arising out of, among other things, the County’s alleged failure to inspect, maintain, and repair the building steps, to meet Building Code requirements, to install a handrail, to warn, and to ensure the building was accessible to the public in a safe condition.
Wilson County contended the claim was barred by governmental immunity; however, the trial court refused to grant judgment in the County’s favor.  On appeal last year, the Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court.  The Court of Appeals focused on Mr. Bynum’s purpose in visiting the county building to pay his water bill and held that paying his water bill served a proprietary function of the County, not a governmental function.  Governmental immunity is only available when the government engages in a governmental function, not a proprietary function.  The Court of Appeals’ opinion thus left open the possibility that two citizens could both suffer injuries while visiting the same county building, but if one visited for a governmental purpose (i.e. recording a deed), while the other visited for a proprietary purpose (i.e. paying a water bill), the County would have immunity from negligence claims as to one of the citizens, but not the other.
However, the North Carolina Supreme Court corrected this potential inconsistent result when it reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision.  The Supreme Court held the Court of Appeals erred by “inappropriately injecting Mr. Bynum’s actions and subjective intentions into its analysis.”  The Court noted the three-step inquiry established in Estate of Williams v. Pasquotank County Parks & Recreation Dep’t, 366 N.C. 195 (2012), to determine whether an activity is governmental or proprietary:
(1) Has the legislature considered the activity proprietary or governmental?
(2) Is the activity something that only a governmental agency or instrumentality can provide?
(3) If the activity can be performed both privately and publicly, a court should consider whether the service is traditionally performed by a governmental entity, whether a substantial fee is charged, and whether that fee does more than simply cover the operating costs of the service provider.
A North Carolina statute provides that a county “board of commissioners shall supervise the maintenance, repair, and use of all county property.”  N.C. Gen. Stat. § 153A-169.   According to the Supreme Court, the fact that the legislature designated the responsibilities of locating, supervising, and maintaining the county buildings was dispositive of whether Wilson County was immune from negligence claims—not whether Mr. Bynum was visiting the building for a governmental or proprietary purpose.  The County building housed numerous county departments, including the county commissioners meeting room, the planning department, the inspections department, the water department, the finance department, the human resources department, and the office of the county manager.  These departments served the County’s discretionary, legislative, and public functions.  Focusing on the individual’s subjective intent for visiting the building was inconsistent with the three-step inquiry from Estate of Williams.  Accordingly, Wilson County was immune from the plaintiff’s negligence claim, and the trial court should have granted judgment in favor of the County.
This decision is a significant decision for local governments across North Carolina, especially where multiple governmental agencies may be located in one building.  The governmental immunity analysis from time to time can be a fact-intensive inquiry, but this decision eliminates much of that analysis for injuries sustained in governmental buildings.  Of course, immunity may be waived by purchasing insurance, so it is critical to know exactly what claims are covered under any liability insurance policy and in particular, if an endorsement modifies that coverage if the claim is one barred by governmental immunity.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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