Municipal Laws

Appellate Court Speaks on Sovereign Immunity and the "Nature" of the Plaintiff’s Involvement with the Government

A case decided last month by the Court of Appeals has something interesting to say about governmental immunity.  The case is Bynum v. Wilson County, No. 08 CVS 2443 (June 18, 2013), available here.

Mr. Bynum visited a multi-purpose Wilson County office building to pay his water bill.  While he was leaving the Wilson County office building, after paying his water bill, Mr. Bynum fell and “sustained serious injuries”.  Mr. Bynum sued the County and the entity from which the County leased the office building.

We will skip the procedural issues and other analytical items in this discussion, and will instead focus only on the appellate court’s review of the trial court’s denial of the County’s summary judgment motion on sovereign immunity grounds.

The Court begins its analysis with setting out the “determinative factor” in an immunity analysis, which the Court finds to be the “nature of the plaintiff’s involvement” with the government.  The Court writes:  “[T]he determinative factor to be considered in ascertaining whether a  particular injury resulted from a governmental or proprietary  activity is the nature of the plaintiff’s involvement with the  governmental unit and the reason for the plaintiff’s presence at a governmental facility rather than the underlying tasks which the governmental entity allegedly performed in a negligent manner.”

But what does this mean, the “nature of the plaintiff’s involvement” with the government?

According to the Court, in an immunity context, the “nature of the plaintiff’s involvement” means as follows: “[W]here a plaintiff is  injured as a result of his or her involvement with a governmental function, such as transacting business at the register of deeds office or borrowing a book from a public library, the relevant governmental entity is immune from suit. On the other hand, if a plaintiff is injured as a result of his or her involvement with a proprietary function, such as attending an event at a governmentally owned facility, then governmental immunity is not available.”

This is an easy test to follow where local government buildings are single-purpose, to the extent that certain purposes are governmental (register of deeds or courthouse) while other purposes are proprietary (water).  But, as in Wilson County, multi-purpose office buildings are more often the norm and especially so in rural or non-urban areas.

Applying the Court’s analysis from Bynum, in the event of multi-purpose local government office buildings, two different plaintiffs injured at the same time, by the same hazard and at the same building though there for different purposes — one to record a deed, the other to pay a water bill — will encounter different legal results in a negligence suit:  the “deed recorder” will encounter immunity, while the “water bill payer” will not encounter immunity.  The Court understood this outcome:  “We do, however, recognize that our reading of the applicable law raises the prospect for potentially troubling results, such as making liability for falls like that suffered by Mr. Bynum contingent upon whether a plaintiff injured in a fall at a county-owned office building used for multiple purposes was on the premises for the purpose of paying a bill for water service or seeking the issuance of a building permit.”

But, alas, the Court was more concerned with blanket immunity, where the presence of any governmental activity will “trump” an otherwise proprietary operation.  Again, back to the Court: “[A]n individual injured in a fall while paying a water bill would be able to pursue a damage recovery in the event that the governmentally owned water system was operated from a separate building while having no right to pursue such a recovery in the event that the water system was operated from a building that contained other offices performing clearly governmental functions.”

Here, the analytical tie went to the private litigant.

Mike Thelen practices in Womble, Carlyle’s Real Estate Litigation and Land Use practice group. He regularly represents a wide variety of clients, from local governments to businesses, in land use and land development matters in both state and federal venues throughout North Carolina.  Follow the North Carolina Land Use Litigator on Twitter at @nclanduselaw.

Categories: Municipal Laws

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