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Hunt v. North Carolina Department of Labor

May 08, 1998

JASON LAMONT HUNT, BY AND THROUGH HIS GUARDIAN AD LITEM, DAVID H. HASTY
v.
NORTH CAROLINA DEPARTMENT OF LABOR



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Parker, Justice

On discretionary review pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 7A-31 of a unanimous decision of the Court of Appeals, 125 N.C. App. 293, 480 S.E.2d 413 (1997), affirming a decision of the Industrial Commission denying defendant's motion pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 1A-1, Rules 12(b)(1) and (6) to dismiss plaintiff's claim. Heard in the Supreme Court 20 November 1997.

Plaintiff, by and through his guardian ad litem, commenced this negligence action against defendant, North Carolina Department of Labor, pursuant to the Tort Claims Act, N.C.G.S. §§ 143-291 to -300.1 (1993) (amended 1994). Plaintiff sought damages for injuries resulting from an accident at an amusement park in Cumberland County, North Carolina. Defendant moved, pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 1A-1, Rules 12(b)(1) and (6), to dismiss plaintiff's claim. Deputy Commissioner John A. Hedrick denied the motion. The full Commission affirmed and adopted his decision.

The Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court of Appeals held that the North Carolina Administrative Code, specifically 13 NCAC 15 .0405, which describes the duties of inspectors for the Department of Labor, imposes a duty upon defendant to inspect amusement devices to ensure compliance with the Administrative Code and that breach of this duty could give rise to an action for negligence. Hunt v. N.C. Dep't of Labor, 125 N.C. App. 293, 297, 480 S.E.2d 413, 416 (1997). The lower court also held that the public duty doctrine does not apply to actions brought against the State under the Tort Claims Act. Id. at 296, 480 S.E.2d at 415. On 5 June 1997 this Court granted defendant's petition for discretionary review.

This appeal is before us based on defendant's motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, N.C. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1), (6); *fn1 thus, we treat plaintiff's factual allegations contained in his affidavit before the Industrial Commission as true. See Cage v. Colonial Bldg. Co., 337 N.C. 682, 683, 448 S.E.2d 115, 116 (1994). On 28 July 1993 plaintiff was operating a go-kart, owned by Ride `N Slide, Inc., in Fayetteville, North Carolina, when the brakes failed, causing plaintiff to hit a pole. Plaintiff suffered severe injuries to his abdominal area when his seat belt tightened. Tony Brewer, an elevator and amusement ride inspector for defendant North Carolina Department of Labor, had previously inspected and passed the go-karts when the seat belts were not in compliance with the rules and regulations contained in section .0400 of the North Carolina Administrative Code.

Plaintiff contends that defendant had a duty under the Amusement Device Safety Act, chapter 95, article 14B of the North Carolina General Statutes, and the rules and regulations promulgated thereunder in the Administrative Code; that defendant breached that duty by failing to inform the amusement park's manager that, pursuant to rule .0429(a)(3)(B) of the Administrative Code, shoulder straps, as well as seat belts, must be mounted on the go-karts; that defendant's breach caused plaintiff's injury; and that plaintiff's injury entitles him to damages in tort.

Plaintiff has thus alleged a common law negligence action against the State under the Tort Claims Act. The Tort Claims Act provides, in pertinent part, that

[t]he Industrial Commission shall determine whether or not each claim arose as a result of negligence of any officer, employee, involuntary servant or agent of the State while acting within the scope of office, employment, service, agency or authority under circumstances where the State of North Carolina, if a private person, would be liable to the claimant in accordance with the laws of North Carolina.

N.C.G.S. § 143-291(a). To recover damages for common law negligence, a plaintiff must establish (i) a legal duty, (ii) a breach thereof, and (iii) injury proximately caused by such breach. Tise v. Yates Constr. Co., Inc., 345 N.C. 456, 460, 480 S.E.2d 677, 680 (1997); see also Petty v. Cranston Print Works Co., 243 N.C. 292, 298, 90 S.E.2d 717, 721 (1956).

Defendant contends that the public duty doctrine bars this action against the State; that plaintiff has, therefore, failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted; and that the claim is subject to dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). The public duty doctrine was adopted by this Court in Braswell v. Braswell, 330 N.C. 363, 370-71, 410 S.E.2d 897, 901-02 (1991). The doctrine "provides that governmental entities and their agents owe duties only to the general public, not to individuals, absent a `special relationship' or `special duty' between the entity and the injured party." Stone v. N.C. Dep't of Labor, 347 N.C. 473, 477-78, 495 S.E.2d 711, 714 (1998). Defendant further contends that because plaintiff has failed to state a claim, the Industrial Commission lacks subject matter jurisdiction over defendant.

We recently examined the public duty doctrine and its applicability to claims brought under the Tort Claims Act. In Stone we held that "the Tort Claims Act . . . incorporat[es] the existing common law rules of negligence, including [the public duty] doctrine." Id. at 479, 495 S.E.2d at 715; see also Floyd v. N.C. State Highway & Pub. Works Comm'n, 241 N.C. 461, 464, 85 S.E.2d 703, 705 (1955), overruled in part on other grounds by Barney v. N.C. State Highway Comm'n, 282 N.C. 278, 284-85, 192 S.E.2d 273, 277 (1972); McKinney v. Deneen, 231 N.C. 540, 542, 58 S.E.2d 107, 109 (1950).

In Stone v. N.C. Dep't of Labor, plaintiffs brought a negligence claim against the Department of Labor and its Occupational Safety and Health Division for failure to inspect the Imperial Foods Products plant. Stone, 347 N.C. at 477, 495 S.E.2d at 713. A fire broke out at the plant, killing or injuring more than one hundred employees. Id. Plaintiffs brought suit under the Tort Claims Act arguing that defendants owed each employee a duty under N.C.G.S. § 95-4 to inspect the plant. Id. at 483, 495 S.E.2d at 717. In concluding that the public duty doctrine applied to plaintiffs' claims in Stone, we expressly found that N.C.G.S. § 95-4 imposed a duty upon defendants for the benefit of the general public, id., and that "[t]he policies underlying recognition of the public duty in Braswell support its application here," id. at 481, 495 S.E.2d at 716. Accordingly, defendants did not owe a duty to each individual complainant in Stone; and, since the exceptions to the doctrine did not apply, defendants' motion to dismiss was improperly denied.

This Court having determined in Stone that the public duty doctrine can apply to actions against state agencies brought under the Tort Claims Act, we must determine applicability of the public duty doctrine to this case.

The general rule is that a governmental entity acts for the benefit of the general public, not for a specific individual, and, thus, cannot be held liable for a failure to carry out its duties to an individual. Braswell, 330 N.C. at 370, 410 S.E.2d at 901. Without any distinct duty to any specific individual, the entity cannot be held liable. Tise, 345 N.C. at 460, 480 S.E.2d at 680.

A review of the Amusement Device Safety Act discloses that nowhere in the Act did the legislature impose a duty upon defendant to each go-kart customer. Pursuant to N.C.G.S. ยง 95-111.4, the Commissioner of Labor has promulgated rules governing the inspection of go-karts. 13 NCAC 15 .0400 (June 1992). These rules similarly do not impose any such duty. As this Court said in Stone, "`[A] government ought to be free to enact laws for the public protection without thereby exposing its supporting taxpayers . . . to liability for failures of omission in its attempt to enforce them. It is better to have such laws, even haphazardly enforced, than not to ...


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