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Williams v. Holsclaw

January 06, 1998

MICHAEL ANTHONY WILLIAMS AND KATHERINE WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFFS
v.
RONALD FLOYD HOLSCLAW AND CITY OF RALEIGH, DEFENDANTS



Appeal by plaintiffs from orders entered 4 October 1996 and 24 October 1996 by Judge Henry V. Barnette, Jr., in Wake County Superior Court.

Martin, Mark D., Judge. Judge Greene concurs with separate opinion. Judge Wynn concurs in the result only with separate opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Martin

MARTIN, Mark D., Judge.

Plaintiffs appeal from orders granting summary judgment to defendants Ronald Holsclaw (Officer Holsclaw) and the City of Raleigh (collectively the municipal defendants) and dismissing unnamed defendant Integon Indemnity Corporation (Integon).

On 13 November 1994 plaintiff Michael Williams (Williams) was involved in an automobile accident with Officer Holsclaw, an on-duty City of Raleigh (City) police officer. Officer Holsclaw, while responding to a call, switched channels on his police radio to monitor the situation. After changing the channel, he saw Williams' vehicle ahead of him but was unable to avoid impact. As a result of this collision, Williams suffered injuries and his automobile was damaged.

On 19 December 1995 Williams and his wife, Katherine, filed suit against the municipal defendants alleging Officer Holsclaw's negligence caused the collision. Defendants answered and alleged the claims were barred by sovereign immunity and public officer immunity. Plaintiffs then served the uninsured motorist carrier, unnamed defendant Integon.

On 18 July 1996 Integon filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to North Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). On 9 August 1996 the municipal defendants filed a motion for summary judgment. On 4 October 1996 the trial court granted the municipal defendants' motion for summary judgment on the grounds of governmental immunity and public officers' immunity. On 24 October 1996 the trial court granted Integon's motion to dismiss. Specifically, as plaintiffs were legally prevented from recovering against the municipal defendants, Williams' uninsured motorist (UM) carrier, Integon, was also shielded from liability under the UM statute.

On appeal, plaintiffs contend the doctrine of sovereign immunity does not shield the municipal defendants from liability.

"Under the doctrine of governmental immunity, a municipality is not liable for the torts of its officers and employees if the torts are committed while they are performing a governmental function." Taylor v. Ashburn, 112 N.C. App. 604, 607, 436 S.E.2d 276, 278 (1993), disc. review denied, 336 N.C. 77, 445 S.E.2d 46 (1994). Law enforcement is well established as a governmental function. Hare v. Butler, 99 N.C. App. 693, 698, 394 S.E.2d 231, 235, disc. review denied, 327 N.C. 634, 399 S.E.2d 121 (1990).

Officer Holsclaw was performing his official duties as a police officer when he responded to a call at the time of the collision. Therefore, the City and Officer Holsclaw, in his official capacity, are generally immune from suit under the governmental immunity doctrine. Taylor, 112 N.C. App. at 607, 436 S.E.2d at 279 (police officers, as public officers, share in the immunity of their governing municipalities).

A municipality may waive immunity, however, by purchasing liability insurance or by joining a local government risk pool. N.C. Gen. Stat § 160A-485 (1994); Combs v. Town of Belhaven, 106 N.C. App. 71, 73, 415 S.E.2d 91, 92 (1992) (discussing the purchase of insurance). The municipality generally retains civil tort liability immunity to the extent it does not participate in a local governmental risk pool or purchase liability insurance. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 160A-485 (1994).

The record in the instant action indicates the City purchased liability insurance for claims between $1,000,000 and $10,000,000, but is wholly uninsured for claims under or above this range. Because plaintiffs seek damages less than $1,000,000, immunity has not been waived and the City and Officer Holsclaw, in his official capacity, are entitled to summary judgment.

Although Officer Holsclaw is immune from suit in his official capacity, we must still determine whether he can be held personally liable in his individual capacity. Our Supreme Court recently noted, "[the] crucial question for determining whether a defendant is sued in an individual or official capacity is the nature of the relief sought, not the nature of the act or omission alleged." Meyer v. Walls, 347 N.C. 97, , 489 S.E.2d 880, 887 (1997) (quoting Anita R. Brown-Graham & Jeffrey S. Koeze, Immunity from Personal Liability under State Law for Public Officials and Employees: An Update, Loc. Gov't L. Bull. 67, at 7 (Inst. of Gov't, Univ. of N.C. at Chapel Hill), Apr. 1995).

If money damages are sought, the court must ascertain whether the complaint indicates that the damages are sought from the government or from the pocket of the individual defendant. If the former, it is an official-capacity claim; if the latter, it is an individual-capacity ...


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