Coplin v. Francis, 90-CA-0705

Decision Date27 January 1994
Docket NumberNo. 90-CA-0705,90-CA-0705
Citation631 So.2d 752
PartiesDonald COPLIN, Sandra Gilds, Don Coplin, Jr., Eric Coplin, Crystal Coplin and Kevin Gilds v. Delma (Pete) FRANCIS and District Five of Monroe County, Mississippi.
CourtMississippi Supreme Court

Jim Waide, Waide Law Office, Tupelo, for appellants.

John M. Creekmore, Amory, for appellees.


HAWKINS, Chief Justice, for the Court:

This is an appeal by the Coplin family of a dismissal of their wrongful death action against Supervisor's District Five of Monroe County and Delma (Pete) Francis, its supervisor, for the wrongful death of Christopher Gilds. At issue is whether these defendants enjoy sovereign immunity for failure to maintain a county bridge. Finding the circuit court erred in its dismissal of the action against Francis, we reverse; otherwise, we affirm.


On July 14, 1987, Donald Coplin and Sandra Gilds, on behalf of themselves as parents, and as next friend of their minor children, Don Coplin, Jr., Eric Coplin, Crystal Coplin and Kevin Gilds, filed a complaint against "District Five of Monroe County, Mississippi," and Supervisor Francis for the wrongful death of Christopher, the minor son of Donald and Sandra. 1

The complaint alleged that on September 20, 1985, Sandra was driving a car in which Christopher was riding, and as she crossed a one-lane, unmarked bridge which had no side railings on it, obscured by grass, and with holes in it, she met head-on a car being driving by Debbie Cox, who was intoxicated and driving at an excessive rate of speed. In the resulting collision, the Gilds vehicle was knocked off the bridge and Christopher was killed. 2

The complaint charged Francis with negligently permitting grass to grow along the bridge, failing to post warning signs and rails on the bridge, permitting holes in the bridge and maintaining a dangerously narrow bridge. The county district was charged with vicarious liability.

Interrogatories were filed and the deposition of Francis was taken. The defendants on September 19, 1988, moved for a Rule 12(b) M.R.C.P. dismissal, and the court on November 7, 1989, entered a summary judgment dismissing the complaint.


Generally we have found individual supervisors, as well as County Boards of Supervisors, to be immune from liability for injuries sustained as a result of the negligent maintenance of public roads. Webb v. County of Lincoln, 536 So.2d 1356, 1358-1360 (Miss.1988); State of Mississippi for the Use and Benefit of Nelda Brazeale and Nelda Brazeale, Individually v. Richard A. Lewis, Individually, and United States Fidelity & Guaranty Co., 498 So.2d 321, 323-324 (Miss.1986). However, as we stated in Grantham v. Dept. of Corrections, 522 So.2d 219 (Miss.1988):

Our law thus directs that a government official has no immunity to a civil action for damages if his breach of a legal duty causes injury and (1) that duty is ministerial in nature, or (2) that duty involved the use of discretion and the governmental actor greatly or substantially exceeds his authority and in this course thereof causes harm or (3) the governmental actor commits an intentional tort.

Id. at 225. Thus, the threshold question in determining whether Francis is clothed with the qualified immunity afforded public officials is whether the construction and maintenance of the bridge upon which the accident occurred is a ministerial or a discretionary function.

We have frequently articulated the distinction between discretionary and ministerial duties, distinguishing between those actions which inherently require the exercise of individual judgment and those which are positively imposed by law. The classic definition of a ministerial function is found in Poyner v Gilmore, 171 Miss. 859, 158 So. 922 (1935), where it was stated that:

[t]he most important criterion, perhaps, is that [if] the duty is one which has been positively imposed by law and its performance required at a time and in a manner or upon conditions which are specifically designated, the duty to perform under the conditions specified not being dependent upon the officer's judgment or discretion, the act and discharge thereof is ministerial.

Poyner, 171 Miss. at 865, 158 So. at 923. See also Barrett v. Miller, 599 So.2d 559, 567 (Miss.1992); McFadden v. State, 542 So.2d 871, 877 (Miss.1989); Region VII, Mental Health v. Isaac, 523 So.2d 1013, 1017 (Miss.1988).

Qualified immunity protects only those public officials engaged in discretionary decision-making. See, e.g., Davis v. Little, 362 So.2d 642 (Miss.1978) (supervisor charged with negligence while driving county-owned pickup truck not immune as to the act of driving vehicle because it did not involve official discretionary decision-making process); Region VII, Mental Health v. Isaac, 523 So.2d 1013 (Miss.1988) (Commissioners were acting in a discretionary capacity in establishing a supervised apartment program, and were therefore entitled to qualified immunity from liability for death of a client stabbed to death by his roommate).

Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 65-21-1 (1972) provides specifically for the width of bridges and requires that they be equipped with guard rails. The statute reads in relevant part as follows:

All culverts hereafter built, rebuilt, or placed in any public road in this state shall be not less than the full width of the crown of the roadway, and shall have guide or warning posts on either side. All bridges hereafter built, rebuilt, or placed in any public road shall be built the full width of the crown of the roadway where the same is sixteen feet wide or less, and on roads having a greater width than sixteen feet the bridges shall be not less than sixteen feet wide; and all bridges hereafter built or rebuilt shall be built with banisters on either side. (emphasis added)

In Lee County Board of Supervisors v. Fortune, 611 So.2d 927 (Miss.1992), while declining to answer the question of whether Sec. 65-21-1 and Sec. 19-13-51 3 provide a statutory basis for a finding of no immunity, we affirmed the Lee County Circuit Court's denial of the Board of Supervisor's motion to dismiss and remanded the case for further proceedings. Margie Fortune brought suit against the Board of Supervisors and XYZ Construction Company following the death of her husband and their two minor children in an accident which occurred on a county bridge. As in the case sub judice, the bridge was extremely narrow, had no guardrails and lacked warning signs.

We now resolve the questions regarding the applicability of ministerial/discretionary function dichotomy to the construction of bridges left unanswered in Fortune. Boards of supervisors are vested with full jurisdiction over the roads, bridges and ferries in their respective counties. Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 19-3-41 (1972). We long have maintained that a county has no liability except as authorized by statute. Leflore County v. Big Sand Drainage District, 383 So.2d 501 (Miss.1980). In Webb v. County of Lincoln, 536 So.2d 1356, 1359 (Miss.1988) and State for the Use and Benefit of Brazeale v. Lewis, 498 So.2d 321, 323 (Miss.1986), we recognized that Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 19-13-51 partially abrogates the immunity of boards of supervisors in their capacity as "overseers" of a county's roads and bridges. However, in Lewis, we noted that the statute

does in fact, reinforce the discretionary-ministerial distinction by allowing the board as a whole the authority to make discretionary decisions with regard to the general condition and state of maintenance of county roads and bridges, thus leaving intact the board's qualified immunity for such decisions.

Id. at 323. In finding that road maintenance and repair are discretionary rather than ministerial functions, we stated in Lewis:

Assuming arguendo that an individual member of the board of supervisors has a ministerial duty or function to maintain the roads of his district, we recognize that, for various reasons, at least some roads may be in a state of disrepair from time to time, particularly due to lack of funds, which would, of course, require that the main, heavily-traveled roads receive the supervisor's immediate attention. Certainly, making the determination as to which roads should be the better maintained under such conditions would be a discretionary matter with the individual member of the board, absent some personal tort committed by him.

Id. at 323.

In Lewis the plaintiff alleged that her injuries were caused by "numerous holes, indentations, and rough spots along the road which culminated in creating a hazardous condition." Id. at 321-322, and in Webb we relied on Lewis to find that the repair of a fallen stop sign, which the plaintiffs alleged caused the one-car accident in which they were injured, was also a discretionary function. 4

In contrast to the road maintenance and repair issues discussed in Lewis and Webb, the construction of bridges is specified in Miss.Code Ann. Sec. 65-21-1. The statute mandates that any bridge that is built or rebuilt "shall be the full width of the crown of the roadway where the same is sixteen feet wide or less, and on roads having a greater width than sixteen feet the bridges shall not be less than sixteen feet wide." Moreover, Sec. 65-21-1 specifies that all such bridges shall have "banisters" on either side. We find that the statute gives the supervisor no discretion in meeting the minimum specifications for bridge construction. Any judgment and discretion comes into play only after the minimum standards have been met, such as deciding whether to build a wider bridge than mandated by the statute to accommodate a shoulder or determining the height of the requisite banisters or guardrails.

Assuming arguendo that the statute were construed to provide sufficient latitude so as to warrant a finding that the design and construction of bridges was a wholly discretionary function, there would remain a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether Francis...

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