Prior v. Pruett

Decision Date05 June 2001
Docket NumberNo. COA00-415.,COA00-415.
Citation143 NC App. 612,550 S.E.2d 166
CourtNorth Carolina Court of Appeals
PartiesHarold F. PRIOR and Paulette M. Prior, Co-Administrators of the Estate of Shawn Kelly Prior, Deceased, as Administrators, and on their own behalf, Plaintiffs, v. James Earl PRUETT, individually in his official capacity as deputy of the Burke County Sheriff's Department; Steven Scott Rogers, individually and in his official capacity as a deputy of the Burke County Sheriff's Department; Lyle Dean Garland, individually and in his official capacity as a deputy of Burke County Sheriff's Department; Ralph Johnson, individually and in his official capacity as Sheriff of Burke County; and Burke County, a body politic and corporate, Defendants.

Goldsmith, Goldsmith & Dews, P.A., by C. Frank Goldsmith, Jr., Marion, for plaintiffs-appellants.

Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, by G. Michael Barnhill and W. Clark Goodman, Charlotte, for defendants-appellees.

BIGGS, Judge.

This appeal arises from a wrongful death action filed by the Estate of Shawn Kelly Prior, in which the trial court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs, Harold and Paulette Prior assert that the trial court's entry of summary judgment was error because there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the reasonableness of the defendants' conduct and therefore defendants were not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. For the reasons stated herein, we reverse the decision of the trial court.

On 15 August 1994, Harold and Paulette Prior (hereinafter plaintiffs), the parents and co-administrators of the estate of Shawn Prior, commenced this action in Burke County Superior Court. The action consisted of a claim for relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for a violation of the plaintiff decedent's civil rights and a claim for relief under North Carolina common law based on the wrongful death of the decedent upon theories of negligence and assault and battery. Plaintiffs subsequently removed the case to the United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina based on the federal civil rights claim.

Following extensive discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment as to all claims. On 16 May 1996, the Honorable Lacy H. Thornburg granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the causes of action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on a determination that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.1 Judge Thornburg declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state claims and remanded the claims to state court, noting that the "threshold for determining whether the limits of privileged force have been exceeded for purposes of liability under Section 1983 is higher than that for a normal tort action," and "[t]hus, the above ruling is not sufficient for dismissal of these claims."

On remand, before the superior court of Burke County, the defendants' filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. On 23 March 1997, the Honorable Claude S. Sitton denied the defendants' motion, after which the defendants' appealed. On appeal to this Court, the defendants' argued that the trial court erred by (1) denying the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings on the basis of collateral estoppel and (2) denying defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings as to all claims against the defendants in their individual capacities on the basis of public officer immunity. In an unpublished opinion, this Court affirmed the trial court's decision.

On 5 October 1999, pursuant to Rule 56, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment relying on the findings of fact contained in the Memorandum and Order by Judge Thornburg and the materials included in the Appendix to defendants' motion for summary judgment in the United States District Court. After hearing the arguments of the parties and considering the evidence presented, the trial court granted the motion for summary judgment as to all defendants and dismissed all remaining charges with prejudice. From this order, the plaintiffs now appeal.

Pertinent facts and procedural history include the following: Shawn Prior (Shawn) was the twenty-four year old son of plaintiffs Harold and Paulette Prior. Shawn had a history of alcohol and drug abuse, and had been hospitalized in 1992 for attempted suicide. In August 1993, Shawn was released from Swain Recovery Center in Black Mountain, North Carolina after forty-two days of in-patient treatment for substance abuse. By the end of September 1993, Shawn had begun drinking again.

On 2 October 1993, Shawn was heavily intoxicated and called 911 threatening suicide. The 911 operator notified emergency medical services and the Burke County Sheriff's Department. Neighbors Joe and Mark Cooper heard the 911 call over the police scanner and went to the Prior residence to investigate. Both Mark and Joe observed that Shawn was intoxicated and was in possession of a fifteen to sixteen inch knife.

When the EMS technicians arrived, Mark Cooper told the sheriff's deputy, "[h]ey you need to get your ass up here, you know, just to get between us and him." Defendant Lyle Garland (Garland), the first deputy on the scene, found Shawn standing at the door leading from the garage to the kitchen holding a knife in his right hand. With his gun drawn, but out of Shawn's view, the deputy attempted to talk Shawn into dropping the knife. Shawn refused; instead responding with threats and obscenities. Soon, Lieutenant James Pruett (Pruett) arrived. With his gun drawn, Pruett yelled at Shawn to drop the knife, to which Shawn responded by drawing up the knife as if he would use it. After Pruett arrived, Garland advanced to the screen door to attempt to disarm Shawn, but was unsuccessful. At this point, Shawn yelled at the officers saying that he had a gun and was going to get it.

While the officers were trying to convince Shawn to drop the knife, Shawn's brother, Todd Prior (Todd), arrived on the scene and asked to speak to his brother, but the officers refused. At some point, a third officer, defendant Steven Rogers (Rogers) arrived and positioned himself between Garland and Pruett. His arrival prompted Shawn to point the knife at each officer, yelling, "[s]peak English or die." The officers commented that they were concerned that if Shawn left the door to get the gun, he would harm anyone in his path, including the EMS personnel and his parents in the event that they came home.

The officer-defendants continuously warned Shawn not to step out of the door and urged him to put the knife down. While doing so, Sergeant Leon Foss, a friend of Shawn's mother, arrived and tried to talk Shawn into dropping the knife. Although Shawn calmed momentarily, he soon became agitated again and slammed the knife through the glass panes in the door. He began cursing at the officers, and switching the knife from hand to hand. As Sergeant Foss attempted to reason with him, Shawn closed his eyes, began to breathe deeply, and began rocking back and forth while holding the knife up near his chest. With their guns drawn, the officers warned Shawn not to come out of the door, or they would have to take action. When Shawn began to move forward, with his left foot, all three officers discharged their weapons, fatally wounding the decedent. Although Garland and Rogers each shot Shawn once, Pruett shot three times.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argue that the trial court erred in granting defendants' motion for summary judgment because there were genuine issues of material fact regarding the reasonableness of the defendants' conduct. We agree and reverse the decision of the trial court.

A defendant is entitled to summary judgment if there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and defendant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. N.C.G.S. § 1A-1, Rule 56(c) (1999). If findings of fact are necessary to resolve an issue of material fact, summary judgment is improper. Moore v. Galloway, 35 N.C.App. 394, 396, 241 S.E.2d 386, 387 (1978). A material fact for summary judgment purposes is one that "would constitute or would irrevocably establish any material element of a claim or defense." Bernick v. Jurden, 306 N.C. 435, 440, 293 S.E.2d 405, 409 (1982) (quoting City of Thomasville v. Lease Afex, Inc., 300 N.C. 651, 654, 268 S.E.2d 190, 193 (1980)). Evidence properly considered on a motion for summary judgment includes "admissions in pleadings, depositions on file, answers to Rule 33 interrogatories, admissions on file... affidavits, and any other material which would be admissible in evidence or of which judicial notice may properly be taken." Epps v. Duke University, Inc. 122 N.C.App. 198, 202, 468 S.E.2d 846, 849-850, disc. review denied, 344 N.C. 436, 476 S.E.2d 115 (1996). Any evidence presented should be "viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, giving it the benefit of all inferences which reasonably arise therefrom." Id. To overcome a motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must "produce a forecast of evidence demonstrating that the [nonmoving party] will be able to make out at least a prima facie case at trial." Creech v. Melnik, 347 N.C. 520, 526, 495 S.E.2d 907, 911 (1998) (quoting Collingwood v. G.E. Real Estate Equities, 324 N.C. 63, 66, 376 S.E.2d 425, 427 (1989)). Generally, summary judgment is inappropriate in cases alleging negligence because the standard of reasonable care should ordinarily be applied by the jury under appropriate instruction from the court. Ragland v. Moore, 299 N.C. 360, 363, 261 S.E.2d 666, 668 (1980) (citation omitted).

At the outset, we address the defendants' argument that the trial court's grant of summary judgment was proper because the federal district court's finding of qualified immunity precludes the plaintiffs' state law tort claim for wrongful death as a matter of law. As primary support for this argument, the defendants cite Estate of Fennell v. Stephenson, 137 N.C.App. 430, 528 S.E.2d...

To continue reading

Request your trial
42 cases
  • Everitt v. Gen. Elec. Co.
    • United States
    • New Hampshire Supreme Court
    • September 21, 2007
    ...(common law immunity); Brumfield v. Lowe, 744 So.2d 383, 388 (Miss.Ct.App.1999) (common law immunity); Prior v. Pruett, 143 N.C.App. 612, 550 S.E.2d 166, 174 (N.C.Ct.App.2001) (common law immunity); Alston v. City of Camden, 168 N.J. 170, 773 A.2d 693, 697, 703–04 (2001) (statutory immunity......
  • Bartley v. City of High Point
    • United States
    • North Carolina Supreme Court
    • June 17, 2022
    ...accepted police practice and custom" contributes to the finding that officers acted contrary to their duty. Prior v. Pruett , 143 N.C. App. 612, 623–24, 550 S.E.2d 166 (2001), disc. review denied , 355 N.C. 493 (2002). ¶ 24 We have held that "the intention to inflict injury may be construct......
  • McLaughlin v. Bailey
    • United States
    • North Carolina Court of Appeals
    • April 7, 2015
    ...well-settled. ‘A sheriff is liable for the acts or omissions of his deputy as he is for his own.’ ") (quoting Prior v. Pruett, 143 N.C.App. 612, 621, 550 S.E.2d 166, 172 (2001) ) (internal quotation omitted). The fact that the county is the source of funding to pay deputies does not change ......
  • Williams v. CITY OF JACKSONVILLE POLICE, COA03-1450.
    • United States
    • North Carolina Court of Appeals
    • August 3, 2004
    ...prudent person would exercise in the discharge of official duties of like nature under like circumstances.'" Prior v. Pruett, 143 N.C.App. 612, 620, 550 S.E.2d 166, 172 (2001), disc. rev. denied, 355 N.C. 493, 563 S.E.2d 572 (2002) (quoting Best v. Duke University, 337 N.C. 742, 752, 448 S.......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT