Wood v. Guilford County, 318PA01.

Citation558 S.E.2d 490
Case DateFebruary 01, 2002
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

Fisher, Clinard & Craig, PLLC, by John O. Craig, III, and Shane T. Stutts, High Point, for plaintiff-appellee.

Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, PLLC, by Burley B. Mitchell, Jr., and Mark A. Davis, Raleigh; and Jonathan V. Maxwell, Guilford County Attorney, and Mercedes Oglukian Chut, Deputy Guilford County Attorney, for defendant-appellant Guilford County.

MARTIN, Justice.

Plaintiff Shelley Austin Wood initiated this action against defendants for injuries sustained on 31 March 1998 when she was assaulted on the second floor of the Guilford County courthouse (the courthouse). Plaintiff was employed by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and worked in the courthouse. Plaintiff's assailant was subsequently convicted of attempted first-degree rape and assault with a deadly weapon inflicting serious injury.

On 30 July 1999, plaintiff filed a complaint against Guilford County (the County) and Burns International Security Services Corporation f/k/a Borg-Warner Professional Services Corporation (Burns Security), the firm contracted by the County to provide security at the courthouse, alleging the following claims for relief: (1) the County breached its duty by failing to provide adequate security at the courthouse; (2) Burns Security breached its duty by failing to provide adequate security at the courthouse; (3) as a result of the County's willful and wanton conduct, plaintiff was entitled to punitive damages; and (4) plaintiff, as an AOC employee stationed at the courthouse, was an intended third-party beneficiary of the security contract between the County and Burns Security, which both breached the contract by failing to provide reasonably adequate security at the courthouse.

In its answer, the County asserted governmental immunity and the public duty doctrine as complete bars to plaintiff's action and moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that plaintiff failed to state a claim for relief under North Carolina Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The County also alleged that punitive damages were not recoverable against a local government under North Carolina law.

On 29 March 2000, the trial court entered an order granting the County's motion to dismiss with respect to plaintiff's punitive damages claim but denying the motion with respect to plaintiff's negligence and breach of contract claims. On 7 April 2000, the County filed an interlocutory appeal from the trial court's order. On 15 May 2001, the Court of Appeals entered a decision affirming the trial court's denial of the County's motion to dismiss the negligence claims and reversing the trial court's order with respect to the breach of contract claim. This Court allowed the County's petition for discretionary review on 22 August 2001 to determine (1) whether the Court of Appeals erred in failing to hold that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over the action, and (2) whether the Court of Appeals erred in failing to determine that plaintiff's claims were barred by the public duty doctrine and governmental immunity.

The County initially raised the defense of subject matter jurisdiction in the Court of Appeals. It argues before this Court that the North Carolina Workers' Compensation Act (the Act) provides the exclusive remedy for a state employee injured while working in a building maintained by the County and that this case should therefore have been brought before the North Carolina Industrial Commission (the Industrial Commission). Plaintiff argues that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over the instant action because the Act does not extend to the type of relationship existing between the County and the State of North Carolina.

At the outset we note that "[t]he question of subject matter jurisdiction may be raised at any time, even in the Supreme Court." Lemmerman v. A.T. Williams Oil Co., 318 N.C. 577, 580, 350 S.E.2d 83, 85 (1986); see also N.C.G.S. § 8C-1, Rule 12(h)(3) (1999). The County therefore properly raised this defense on appeal. Accordingly, the threshold question is whether the trial court properly exercised subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's negligence claim against the County.

It is well settled that the Act provides the exclusive remedy when an employee is injured by accident arising out of and in the course and scope of employment. See N.C.G.S. § 97-10.1 (1999); Bryant v. Dougherty, 267 N.C. 545, 548, 148 S.E.2d 548, 551 (1966). Specifically, the Act bars a worker from bringing a common law negligence action against the employer. Pleasant v. Johnson, 312 N.C. 710, 713, 325 S.E.2d 244, 247 (1985); see also Hicks v. Guilford Cty., 267 N.C. 364, 148 S.E.2d 240 (1966)

. The exclusivity provisions of the Act extend to parties "conducting [the employer's] business," N.C.G.S. § 97-9 (1999), whereby an employer may be liable to an employee under the Act for injuries negligently caused by another employee or by a party acting as an agent of the employer. See Strickland v. King, 293 N.C. 731, 733, 239 S.E.2d 243, 244 (1977). This Court has interpreted N.C.G.S. § 97-10—the predecessor to N.C.G.S. § 97-10.1-as allowing an injured worker to bring a common law negligence action against a third party, however, when the third party is a " `stranger to the employment.'" Jackson v. Bobbitt, 253 N.C. 670, 677-78, 117 S.E.2d 806, 811-12 (1961) (quoting Warner v. Leder, 234 N.C. 727, 69 S.E.2d 6 (1952),

overruled on other grounds by Woodson v. Rowland, 329 N.C. 330, 348-49, 407 S.E.2d 222, 233 (1991),

and by Pleasant, 312 N.C. at 718,

325 S.E.2d at 250) (holding that nonemployee driver was a stranger to the employment because employees injured in car accident did not show that transportation provided was anything more than "gratuitous or a mere accommodation"), quoted in Pleasant, 312 N.C. at 713,

325 S.E.2d at 247.

North Carolina law requires counties to provide facilities for the operation of the state's judicial system: "In each county in which a district court has been established, courtrooms ... and related judicial facilities (including furniture), as defined in this Subchapter, shall be provided by the county." N.C.G.S. § 7A-302 (1999). In addition to providing judicial facilities, the County elected to provide security for the courthouse through a contract negotiated with Burns Security. The County argues that by providing the courthouse, as well as the security for the courthouse, it was conducting the state's business and therefore was acting as an agent of the state, making the Industrial Commission the proper forum for this action. We disagree.

The County was not employed by the state, nor was it required by the express terms of N.C.G.S. § 7A-302 to provide security for the courthouse. The AOC is responsible for administering the state's judicial system. By providing judicial facilities and contracting with a private security company, the County was not assisting the AOC, nor was the County conducting the business of the AOC for purposes of N.C.G.S. § 97-9. Insofar as its provision of the building and security was concerned, the County remained a stranger to the actual employment relationship existing between plaintiff and the state. Accordingly, we reject the County's argument that the Industrial Commission provided the exclusive forum for the instant action.

The County next argues that the trial court erred by denying its Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss plaintiff's negligence claim on grounds of the public duty doctrine and governmental immunity. Plaintiff argues that both the trial court and the Court of Appeals correctly determined that the public duty doctrine is unavailable to the County and, furthermore, that the County waived its governmental immunity by contracting with Burns Security and requiring that "[the County] be named as an additional insured on the Defendant Burns' liability insurance policy."

We observe that "[a] waiver of governmental immunity ... does not give rise to a cause of action where none previously existed." Lynn v. Overlook Dev., 98 N.C.App. 75, 79, 389 S.E.2d 609, 612 (1990) aff'd in part and rev'd in part, 328 N.C. 689, 403 S.E.2d 469 (1991). Our consideration of the public duty doctrine therefore logically precedes the question of waiver of governmental immunity. In other words, absent the existence of a duty, a waiver of governmental immunity in and of itself affords little aid to a plaintiff seeking to recover damages for a municipality's alleged negligence. Florence v. Goldberg, 44 N.Y.2d 189, 195, 404 N.Y.S.2d 583, 375 N.E.2d 763, 766 (1978).

On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the question is whether, as a matter of law, the allegations of the complaint, treated as true, state a claim upon which relief can be granted. senhour v. Hutto, 350 N.C. 601, 604, 517 S.E.2d 121, 124 (1999). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is proper when one of the following three conditions is satisfied: (1) the complaint on its face reveals that no law supports the plaintiff's claim; (2) the complaint on its face reveals the absence of facts sufficient to make a good claim; or (3) the complaint discloses some fact that necessarily defeats the plaintiff's claim. Oates v. JAG, Inc., 314 N.C. 276, 278, 333 S.E.2d 222, 224 (1985).

Actionable negligence occurs only where there is "a failure to exercise proper care in the performance of some legal duty which the defendant owed the plaintiff, under the circumstances in which they were placed." Mattingly v. N.C. R.R. Co., 253 N.C. 746, 750, 117 S.E.2d 844, 847 (1961). Moreover, in the context of the provision of police protection by a local government, the duty breached must be more specific than a duty owing to the general public. Lovelace v. City of Shelby...

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