NC Appeals Court permits suit against Raleigh for auto accident injuries

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  • A unanimous N.C. Court of Appeals panel is allowing a woman to move forward with her lawsuit against the city of Raleigh and one of its employees. The employee injured the woman in an auto accident in 2018.
  • Raleigh and the employee asked for the suit to be dismissed based on governmental immunity. The Appeals Court agreed with the trial judge that the worker had been conducting a "proprietary" function. That means the worker and city had no protection from legal action.

A woman injured in a 2018 auto accident in Zebulon can proceed with her lawsuit against the city of Raleigh and one of its employees. The N.C. Court of Appeals has affirmed a trial court ruling allowing the case to move forward.

“Defendants moved to dismiss on grounds of governmental immunity from Plaintiff Shanybel Marie Santer Torres’s claims,” wrote Judge Jefferson Griffin for the unanimous Appeals Court panel. “Defendants contend the trial court erred by finding that [Marty Lee] Hall was performing a proprietary function as an employee of the City at the time that Plaintiff and Hall were involved in an automobile accident. We hold that the evidence before the court supported its holding that Hall’s mission was proprietary, and therefore affirm.”

The legal case involved a dispute over whether Hall was performing a “proprietary” or “governmental” function at the time of the crash. Had the court determined that Hall was performing a governmental function, he and the city could have been protected from the lawsuit by governmental immunity.

There’s no dispute that Hall struck Torres’ vehicle near the intersection of N.C. 264 and N.C. 97 on Jan. 2, 2018, while attempting to make “an abrupt U-turn to the left,” according to Griffin’s opinion.

“Plaintiff suffered injuries to her brain and her left arm as a result of the accident,” Griffin wrote. “Plaintiff underwent surgery to repair her left arm and was hospitalized for a total of twenty-one days.”

Torres sued Hall and the city in November 2020. One year later, a trial judge rejected the city’s attempt to have the case dismissed. Raleigh and Hall appealed that decision.

Raleigh had dispatched Hall to the area to respond to a reported leak from a city-owned water line. Arriving at the scene, Hall discovered that the leak appeared to be coming from a ruptured backflow prevention valve, rather than the actual water line.

“Defendants concede that the City dispatched Hall on the morning of January 2 to conduct a proprietary task — repairing a water main used to sell water for private consumption by its citizens,” Griffin wrote. “Further, Defendants do not dispute that, at all times up and until the moments just prior to the accident, Hall’s assigned mission was to repair a ruptured water main pipe.”

“Nonetheless, Defendants have consistently represented to the courts that Hall’s purpose became governmental just before the accident, when Hall realized the water was coming from the … backflow prevention valve and attempted the U-turn in order to cut the water off for the safety of the public on the freezing winter morning,” according to the opinion.

“Defendants contend the trial court’s ruling was erroneous because Hall’s purpose as of the specific time of the accident had become governmental, and our courts’ focus should be the purpose at that specific point in time,” Griffin wrote.

Appellate judges rejected the city’s arguments. “[O]ur Courts have never so narrowly parsed an employee’s assignment into its individual events in order to determine governmental or proprietary purpose,” Griffin wrote. “To do so would be to adopt a new rule of law, that a purpose or mission must be assessed as of the exact moment in time even when it would indicate a deviation from the employee’s generally assigned mission.”

“Based upon the undisputed evidence before the trial court, the court could reasonably have found that Hall was assigned a single purpose on the morning of January 2: to assess the reports of a water main break near the intersection where the accident occurred,” Griffin added.

“Regardless of whether the service was performed or needed, the evidence showed that Hall’s sole duty on the morning of January 2 was to repair a City-owned water main line — a proprietary purpose for which Defendants are not immune from suit,” he wrote.

Judges Hunter Murphy and Jeffery Carpenter joined Griffin’s opinion.