Sussex County, Del. v. Morris

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Delaware
Writing for the CourtBefore VEASEY; MOORE; VEASEY; HORSEY
Citation610 A.2d 1354
PartiesSUSSEX COUNTY, DELAWARE, a political subdivision of the State of Delaware, Defendant Below, Appellant, and Frank Blake, Jr., Defendant Below, v. E. Stanley MORRIS, Plaintiff Below, Appellee. . Submitted:
Decision Date19 May 1992

Page 1354

610 A.2d 1354
SUSSEX COUNTY, DELAWARE, a political subdivision of the
State of Delaware, Defendant Below, Appellant,
and
Frank Blake, Jr., Defendant Below,
v.
E. Stanley MORRIS, Plaintiff Below, Appellee.
Supreme Court of Delaware.
Submitted: May 19, 1992.
Decided: June 26, 1992.
Rehearing Denied July 30, 1992.

Page 1355

On appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.

Nancy E. Chrissinger (argued), and Michael I. Silverman, Tybout, Redfearn & Pell, Wilmington, for appellant.

I. Barry Guerke, Parkowski, Noble & Guerke, P.A., Dover, for appellee.

Before VEASEY, C.J., HORSEY, MOORE, WALSH and HOLLAND, JJ., constituting the Court en Banc.

MOORE, Justice.

This appeal from the Superior Court involves the scope of immunity conferred upon a county official under the County and Municipal Tort Claims Act, 10 Del.C. § 4010-4013 (the "Act"), and the agency relationship of that official to the county. The appellee, E. Stanley Morris ("Morris"), sued Sussex County, Delaware ("Sussex"), and Frank Blake, Jr. ("Blake"), 1 a Sussex constable, for injuries Morris sustained while in Blake's custody and being conveyed in Blake's own automobile to the Delaware State Hospital (the "State Hospital") pursuant to an involuntary commitment order. Sussex claims that it was entitled to governmental immunity, and

Page 1356

that Blake, in any event, was not its agent. The jury returned a general verdict against Sussex, and in Morris' favor, of $100,000. Sussex appeals, also contending that it was entitled to a remittitur of $15,130 in connection with certain personal injury protection ("PIP") coverage which Morris was entitled to receive under Blake's automobile insurance. In our opinion the evidence fully supports the jury's finding that Blake was Sussex's agent. Ministerial acts of the type performed by Blake here, and the use of his automobile under the facts of this case, exclude his conduct from immunity under the Act. While the trial court's failure to grant the remittitur was erroneous, it was harmless under all of the circumstances. Accordingly, we affirm.

I.

A.

The essential facts are not in dispute. On July 16, 1984, Morris was released from the State Hospital, an institution for the mentally ill, after a 12 day involuntary civil commitment. This was Morris' fourteenth admission to that hospital. He was diagnosed as being alcohol dependent. Medical testimony indicated that in his previous hospitalizations Morris had been diagnosed as suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia and paranoia. Moreover, his underlying psychosis was affected by the disease of alcoholism. Morris had, at times, threatened to kill his estranged wife and himself. On July 17, 1984, less than 24 hours after his release, Morris was again involuntarily committed to the State Hospital for 72 hours. He was held at Milford Memorial Hospital ("Milford Memorial") pending transfer to the State Hospital. To complete this transfer, an employee at Milford Memorial contacted Blake, one of several Sussex constables responsible for transporting mental patients.

Blake arrived at Milford Memorial Hospital driving his own family car--a 1981 4-door Oldsmobile. 2 Accompanying Blake were his brother and father-in-law. This was not the first time that Blake had taken Morris to the State Hospital. Blake handcuffed Morris' hands in front, 3 and shackled his legs. Morris sat in the back seat of Blake's car, with his seat belt fastened, and the door locked. The back doors of Blake's car had not been modified in any way. Therefore, unlike a police car, the rear door locks and handles were fully operational.

During the trip Morris stated several times that he wished he were dead. 4 After making these statements, Morris said he was going to take a nap. Then, unexpectedly, Morris unfastened his seat belt, unlocked the car door, opened the door, and jumped out of the moving car. There was evidence, which the jury could accept, that Morris was experiencing a psychotic episode at that time. He was seriously injured and spent over three months in the hospital undergoing several operations. He has a 45% permanent impairment of one foot, a limp, and is unable to return to his former work in construction.

B.

Morris sued Blake, Sussex and the City of Milford ("Milford"). Summary judgment was granted to Milford. Blake's motion for summary judgment was granted as to allegations of simple negligence, but denied as to wantonness. Sussex's motion for summary judgment was granted only as to its alleged failure to adequately train and equip Blake. The trial court denied summary judgment on the issues of governmental immunity and agency. See Morris v. Blake, Del.Super., 552 A.2d 844, 849-50 (1988). Sussex again moved for summary judgment after this Court's decision in Sadler v. New Castle County, Del.Supr., 565 A.2d 917 (1989). The Superior Court

Page 1357

concluded that its prior decision was implicitly affirmed by Sadler and again denied Sussex County's motion for summary judgment. See Morris v. Blake, Del.Super., C.A. No. 85C-JL-15, 1990 WL 47355, Ridgely, J. (Mar. 20, 1990) (ORDER).

Before trial, Sussex filed a motion in limine concerning the admissibility of certain medical expenses incurred by Morris. Sussex County claimed that Morris was eligible for personal injury protection ("PIP") under Blake's automobile insurance policy in the amount of $25,000. Blake's insurance carrier denied coverage and Morris brought suit which was subsequently settled for $15,000. 5 After accounting for attorney fees and costs, the settlement netted Morris $9,870 which was applied towards Morris' hospital bill. The trial court, over Sussex's objection, admitted the unpaid portion of Morris' hospital bill into evidence. 6

At the close of the trial, Sussex moved for a directed verdict claiming that Blake was not an agent of the County and, therefore, it was not liable for his actions. The trial court reserved decision on the motion. The jury returned a general verdict against Sussex in the amount of $100,000. Sussex moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, for a new trial. The latter motion also was based on the agency issue. Sussex also sought a remittitur of $15,130. Sussex contended that this is the difference between the amount by which Morris' hospital bill was reduced ($9,870) and the amount by which it should have been reduced ($25,000). This was the same issue the trial court earlier ruled upon in Sussex's motion in limine. Each of the motions was denied.

II.

Sussex asserts that it is immune from any liability for Morris' injuries under the Act. Specifically, Sussex claims that Blake's actions were discretionary and, therefore, immune from liability under the Act. Even if Blake's actions were not discretionary, Sussex contends that they remain immunized under the Act. In our opinion Blake's selection and equipment of the car he used to transport Morris, acts which were found to be negligent by the jury, were not discretionary, but ministerial. Moreover, the negligent use of such a motor vehicle under these circumstances divests Sussex of immunity. See 10 Del.C. § 4012(1).

A.

The Superior Court's denials of Sussex's motions for summary judgment turned entirely on issues of statutory construction. These are purely legal questions over which we exercise de novo review. Moses v. Board of Education of the New Castle County Vocational Technical School District, Del.Supr., 602 A.2d 61, 63 (1991). Thus, we will review the Superior Court's decision to determine whether the trial judge erred in formulating or applying legal precepts. Gilbert v. El Paso Co., Del.Supr., 575 A.2d 1131, 1142 (1990).

B.

Resolution of this issue requires an analysis of two sections of the Act. Subject to certain exceptions, Section 4011(a) provides, generally, that counties are immune from suit on all tort claims seeking recovery of damages. Section 4012 of the Act enumerates specific exceptions to this general rule of immunity. The activities listed in Section 4012 are an exclusive list and "are the only activities as to which municipal immunity is waived." Fiat Motors of North America, Inc. v. Mayor and Council of the City of Wilmington, Del.Supr., 498 A.2d 1062, 1066 (1985). Nonetheless, Section 4012 must be read in context and the facts of each case applied

Page 1358

thereto. Hedrick v. Blake, 531 F.Supp. 156, 158 (D.Del.1982).

The Superior Court found that Sussex's liability for Blake's act was based upon Section 4012(1), which states:

A governmental entity shall be exposed to liability for its negligent acts or omissions causing property damage, bodily injury, or death in the following circumstances:

(1) In its ownership, maintenance, or use of any motor vehicle.... or other machinery or equipment whether mobile or stationary.

Morris, 552 A.2d at 849-50.

Sussex argues that it is absolutely immune under the "discretionary function" provision of Section 4011(b)(3), which states in pertinent part:

(b) Notwithstanding § 4012 of this title, a governmental entity shall not be liable for any damage claim which results from:

* * * * * *

(3) The performance or failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty, whether or not the discretion be abused and whether or not the statute, charter, ordinance, order resolution, regulation, or resolve under which the discretionary function or duty is performed is valid or invalid.

10 Del.C. § 4011(b)(3) (emphasis added).

There is a paucity of helpful authority interpreting the provisions of the Act now before us. Both parties rely primarily on Sadler v. New Castle County, Del.Supr., 565 A.2d 917 (1989). There, the appellant was injured when he accidentally fell over Brandywine Falls and struck his head on some rocks. The accident victim sued New Castle County, claiming that his rescuers, all county employees, were negligent in selecting unduly hazardous means to remove him from the river, thus aggravating his...

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37 practice notes
  • Fisher v. Townsends, Inc., No. 308
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Delaware
    • April 15, 1997
    ...on its own facts.' " Id. (quoting Gooden v. Mitchell, Del.Super., 21 A.2d 197, 201 (1941)); see Sussex County v. Morris, Del.Supr., 610 A.2d 1354, 1360 (1992); Mechell v. Palmer, Del.Supr., 343 A.2d 620, 621 (1975); see also Morris v. Blake, Del.Super., 552 A.2d 844, 849 (1988), aff'd sub n......
  • Jordan v. Town of Milton, Civil Action No. 11-00514-GMS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Delaware)
    • January 3, 2013
    ...Motors of N. Am., Inc. v. Mayor & Council of the City of Wilmington, 619 F. Supp. 29, 30 (D. Del. 1985); Sussex Cnty., Del. v. Morris, 610 A.2d 1354, 1361 (Del. 1992); McCaffrey v. City of Wilmington, No. N12C-01-138-PLA, 2012 WL 3518119, at *3 (Del. Super. Aug. 9, 2012). Since civil conspi......
  • Greenfield v. Miles, No. 143, 2018
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Delaware
    • May 30, 2019
    ...allegations are tied to 16 Del. C. § 906. Likewise, Greenfield's briefs on appeal focus on the purported duties created by § 906.54 610 A.2d 1354, 1359 (Del. 1992)55 Restatement (Second) of Torts § 895D cmt. h (1979).56 Sussex Cty. , 610 A.2d at 1359.57 565 A.2d 917 (Del. 1989).58 Id. at 92......
  • Carrigan v. State of Del., Civil Action No. 96-8-JJF.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Delaware)
    • February 18, 1997
    ...as a "conscious indifference evidencing an `I-don't-care attitude.'" Morris v. Blake, 552 A.2d 844, 847-48 (Del.Super.Ct.1988), aff'd, 610 A.2d 1354 (Del.1992). Though not identical, given these definitions, it is clear that the terms "gross negligence" and "wanton conduct" bear some resemb......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
37 cases
  • Fisher v. Townsends, Inc., No. 308
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Delaware
    • April 15, 1997
    ...on its own facts.' " Id. (quoting Gooden v. Mitchell, Del.Super., 21 A.2d 197, 201 (1941)); see Sussex County v. Morris, Del.Supr., 610 A.2d 1354, 1360 (1992); Mechell v. Palmer, Del.Supr., 343 A.2d 620, 621 (1975); see also Morris v. Blake, Del.Super., 552 A.2d 844, 849 (1988), aff'd sub n......
  • Jordan v. Town of Milton, Civil Action No. 11-00514-GMS
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Delaware)
    • January 3, 2013
    ...Motors of N. Am., Inc. v. Mayor & Council of the City of Wilmington, 619 F. Supp. 29, 30 (D. Del. 1985); Sussex Cnty., Del. v. Morris, 610 A.2d 1354, 1361 (Del. 1992); McCaffrey v. City of Wilmington, No. N12C-01-138-PLA, 2012 WL 3518119, at *3 (Del. Super. Aug. 9, 2012). Since civil conspi......
  • Greenfield v. Miles, No. 143, 2018
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Delaware
    • May 30, 2019
    ...allegations are tied to 16 Del. C. § 906. Likewise, Greenfield's briefs on appeal focus on the purported duties created by § 906.54 610 A.2d 1354, 1359 (Del. 1992)55 Restatement (Second) of Torts § 895D cmt. h (1979).56 Sussex Cty. , 610 A.2d at 1359.57 565 A.2d 917 (Del. 1989).58 Id. at 92......
  • Carrigan v. State of Del., Civil Action No. 96-8-JJF.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Court (Delaware)
    • February 18, 1997
    ...as a "conscious indifference evidencing an `I-don't-care attitude.'" Morris v. Blake, 552 A.2d 844, 847-48 (Del.Super.Ct.1988), aff'd, 610 A.2d 1354 (Del.1992). Though not identical, given these definitions, it is clear that the terms "gross negligence" and "wanton conduct" bear some resemb......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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