In the recent North Carolina Supreme Court case of Bynum v. Wilson County, Henry Gorham, Carrie Meigs and Leslie Lasher, along with co-counsel at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, obtained a favorable result for their client, Wilson County. At issue before the North Carolina Supreme Court was the concept of Government Immunity. Defendants were joined by Amicus Brief filers from the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, the North Carolina League of Municipalities, and numerous cities and counties across North Carolina.
According to court documents, the plaintiff fell down a set of stairs at Wilson County’s primary office building after paying his water bill. The plaintiff alleged that Wilson County failed to properly zone, inspect and repair the stairs. Wilson County asserted governmental immunity as a defense to the case, and filed a Motion for Summary Judgment requesting dismissal of the action based on the immunity defense. The trial court denied this Motion, holding that the County was not immune from suit. The Court of Appeals later affirmed the ruling of the trial court and in so determining, relied primarily on the plaintiff’s subjective intent for visiting the Wilson County property, which was to pay his water bill. Because the provision of water is not a function which is typically protected by governmental immunity, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.
After securing a Petition for Discretionary Review with the North Carolina Supreme Court, the case was argued. Counsel for Wilson County argued that the Court of Appeals improperly focused the inquiry of Government Immunity on the subjective intent of the Plaintiff. Historically, the doctrine of Government Immunity has provided that the sovereign has the ability to determine when it would be subject to suit. In switching the focus away from the acts of the sovereign to the subjective intent of the Plaintiff, the Court of Appeals shifted the power of the sovereign to the citizen.
Following the arguments of counsel for Wilson County, on July 12, 2014, the Supreme Court entered an Opinion reversing the Court of Appeals decision. In its Opinion, the Supreme Court stated that the Court of Appeals improperly relied on the plaintiff’s subjective intent in ruling on the immunity issue. Rather, the acts of the government should be reviewed. The acts of inspecting and maintaining the county’s primary office building were in issue, and because the legislature has assigned the responsibility of supervising and maintaining county property, such activities are governmental in nature. Accordingly, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals Opinion, and provided instructions to the trial court to enter summary judgment in favor of Wilson County.
The Opinion in Bynum closely follows the precedential Government Immunity case of Williams v. Pasquotank County, in which case Mr. Gorham was also counsel of record. Bynum is expected to set the precedent for premises liability cases alleged against counties, and solidifies that the inquiry on this issue, while case specific, should focus primarily on the activity being undertaken by the government.
(Lois Edmondson BYNUM, Individually, and Lois Edmondson Bynum, Administratrix of the Estate Of James Earl Bynum and Lois Marie Bynum v. WILSON COUNTY and Sleepy Hollow Development Company/No. 380PA13.)
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