Madison ex rel. Bryant v. Babcock Center

Decision Date07 March 2006
Docket NumberNo. 26198.,26198.
Citation638 S.E.2d 650
CourtSouth Carolina Supreme Court
PartiesMADISON, a fictitious name of a mentally disabled person, through her court-appointed guardian, Brenda BRYANT, Appellant, v. BABCOCK CENTER, INC., a South Carolina Corporation; South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs; and Michelle Batchelor, in her official and individual capacities, Respondents.

Orin G. Briggs, of Lexington, for Appellant.

Danny C. Crowe and R. Hawthorne Barrett, of Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney, P.A., of Columbia, for Respondents Babcock Center, Inc. and Michelle Batchelor.

William H. Davidson, II and Andrew F. Lindemann, of Davidson, Morrison, and Lindemann, P.A., of Columbia, for Respondent South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs.

Acting Justice COLE:

In this appeal, we are asked to decide the novel issue of whether a private treatment center owes a duty to exercise reasonable care in supervising a mentally retarded person admitted to its care; the novel issue of whether a state agency which has a contract with the center owes a duty of care to the person; and whether the mentally retarded person in this case, as a matter of law, proximately caused her own injuries.


It is undisputed that Madison1 (Appellant), now thirty-two years old, is a mentally retarded woman with disabilities and special needs. Babcock Center, Inc. (Babcock Center), its employee Michelle Batchelor, and the South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs (Department) in their answers admit Appellant "has been diagnosed as mildly mentally retarded" and is a "person with disabilities and special needs."2

Appellant was voluntarily admitted as a client in 1994, when she was twenty years old, to a residential home managed by Babcock Center. Babcock Center is a private, non-profit corporation based in Columbia that provides housing and other services for people with autism, mental retardation, head or spinal injuries, or related disabilities. Department has approved Babcock Center as a contractual provider of such services, and the program at issue in this case is the Community Training Home Program II. This residential program offers mentally retarded persons the opportunity to live in the community and receive individualized supervision and support services. Appellant alleges Department coordinates, directs, funds, and oversees the provision of services by contractual providers such as Babcock Center. Appellant further alleges Department, along with its county-based boards, is responsible for performing timely and adequate developmental evaluations of clients and assisting providers in determining the level of care and services required.

Appellant, although physically an adult, alleges she has the emotional and intellectual maturity of a seven- to ten-year-old child. She can read, write, and understand math at the level of a first- or second-grade child. Appellant alleges her mental disability means she is not able to live or work independently. She cannot, for example, cook, wash clothes, run bath water, use a toaster oven, put on her own makeup, or perform personal hygiene tasks without adult supervision. Appellant cannot tell time, understand a sequence of dates or use a calendar, make change for a dollar, or give or follow simple geographical directions. Appellant is not allowed to leave either her parent's home or the Babcock Center home without permission and adult supervision.

While living at Babcock Center, Appellant worked at an animal shelter and a dump site sorting recyclable materials. Babcock Center personnel took her to and from work, where she was supervised by a job coach. Appellant's "lack of perspective and judgment is so limited that she needs help with every significant decision she makes about even the smallest matters that require assessment of consequences, potential danger, or comparing alternative courses of action," according to Brenda Bryant, Appellant's mother and court-appointed guardian.

On August 30, 1995, Appellant, then twenty-one years old, placed her luggage on the front porch of the Babcock Center home and went to bed fully clothed. After everyone was asleep, she secretly slipped out of the house sometime after 1 a.m. and left in a car with two men who either lived or recently had lived in a home managed by Babcock Center. Another woman already was in the car. Appellant believed the four of them planned to go to an unknown location and set up housekeeping on their own. Instead, the other woman was taken home a short while later after an argument.

Appellant and the two men went to a house, where she had sex with one or both of them. Appellant initially told police and her mother she was raped, but testified at a deposition in this case she was "talked into having sex." Appellant returned to her Babcock Center home the following morning. Appellant alleges she was a virgin when she was admitted to the Babcock Center home. She contracted herpes simplex type I, a sexually transmitted disease, after one or more sexual encounters with men while staying at the Babcock Center home.

A probate court judge in 1997 issued an order appointing Appellant's mother as her guardian and conservator. The judge found Appellant was mentally retarded and lacked the capacity to exercise good judgment with regard to her person, assets, and financial affairs.

Appellant's amended complaint alleges causes of action for negligence, gross negligence, and willful indifference against Respondents. Appellant alleges, among other things, that both Babcock Center and Department owed a duty of care to Appellant, which they breached by failing to exercise sufficient control and supervision over Appellant and other Babcock Center residents. Appellant alleges both entities failed to properly supervise facility staff, both failed to heed the previous warnings of Appellant's mother about inappropriate sexual contacts between Appellant and current or former male residents of Babcock Center, and both ignored the requests of her parents that she be released from Babcock Center. Appellant's mother testified that, prior to August 30, 1995, she personally made repeated complaints about the sexual contacts to staff at the Babcock Center home where Appellant lived, Babcock Center director Risley Linder, and James Hill, Department's general counsel.

The circuit court granted summary judgment to Respondents. The judge ruled in two separate orders that, as a matter of law, Respondents "had no legal duty to maintain a constant watch over the plaintiff so as to prevent her surreptitious elopement." Furthermore, the proximate cause of any damages suffered by Appellant, as a matter of law, was Appellant's "own voluntary and intentional acts."

Appellant appealed. We certified this case for review from the Court of Appeals pursuant to Rule 204(b), SCACR.


I. Did the circuit court err in granting summary judgment to Babcock Center on the ground it owes no legal duty of care to Appellant, a mentally retarded client voluntarily admitted to its care?

II. Did the circuit court err in granting summary judgment to Department on the ground it owes no legal duty of care to Appellant, a mentally retarded client voluntarily admitted to Babcock Center, a contractual provider of services?

III. Did the circuit court err in granting summary judgment to Respondents on the ground that, as a matter of law, the proximate cause of any injuries and damages suffered by Appellant were the result of her own voluntary and intentional acts?

IV. Did the circuit court err in ruling that certain allegations against Department are time-barred by the statute of limitations?


A trial court may properly grant a motion for summary judgment when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Rule 56(c), SCRCP; Tupper v. Dorchester County, 326 S.C. 318, 487 S.E.2d 187 (1997). In determining whether any triable issues of fact exist, the court must view the evidence and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Manning v. Quinn, 294 S.C. 383, 365 S.E.2d 24 (1988). Summary judgment is a drastic remedy which should be cautiously invoked so that a litigant is not improperly deprived of a trial on disputed factual issues. Baughman v. American Tel. and Tel. Co., 306 S.C. 101, 112, 410 S.E.2d 537, 543 (1991).

On appeal from an order granting summary judgment, the appellate court applies the same standard that governs the trial court. The appellate court will review all ambiguities, conclusions, and inferences arising in and from the evidence in a light most favorable to the appellant, the non-moving party below. Osborne v. Adams, 346 S.C. 4, 7, 550 S.E.2d 319, 321 (2001); Williams v. Chesterfield Lumber Co., 267 S.C. 607, 230 S.E.2d 447 (1976).

In a case raising a novel question of law, the appellate court is free to decide the question with no particular deference to the lower court. I'On, L.L.C. v. Town of Mt. Pleasant, 338 S.C. 406, 411, 526 S.E.2d 716, 719 (2000) (citing S.C. Const. art. V, §§ 5 and 9, S.C.Code Ann. § § 14-3-320 and -330 (1976 & Supp. 2005), and S.C.Code Ann § 14-8-200 (Supp.2005)); Osprey, Inc. v. Cabana Ltd. Partnership, 340 S.C. 367, 372, 532 S.E.2d 269, 272 (2000) (same); Clark v. Cantrell, 339 S.C. 369, 378, 529 S.E.2d 528, 533 (2000) (same).



Appellant argues the circuit court erred in granting summary judgment to Babcock Center on the ground it owes no legal duty of care to Appellant, a mentally...

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