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Stone v. N.C. DOL - 347 N.C. 473, 495 S.E.2d 711 (1998)

Rule:

The public duty doctrine shields the state and its political subdivisions from tort liability arising out of discretionary governmental actions that by their nature are not ordinarily performed by private persons. Because the governmental entity owes no particular duty to any individual claimant, it cannot be held liable for negligence for a failure to carry out its statutory duties. Absent a duty, there can be no liability.

Facts:

The employees commenced this negligence action against the North Carolina Department of Labor and its Occupational Safety and Health Division (collectively, DOL), pursuant to the Tort Claims Act, N.C.G.S. §§ 143-291 to -300.1 (1996). The employees sought damages for injuries or deaths resulting from a fire at the Imperial Foods Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina.  The DOL claimed that the injured employees and representatives failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted because the DOL did not owe a duty to them based upon the public duty doctrine and the DOL's duty under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-4 to inspect workplaces in North Carolina serves the public at large, not individual employees. The employees and representatives claimed that the public duty doctrine does not apply to bar their claims and under the North Carolina Tort Claims Act, N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 143-291-300.1 (1996), the state is liable if a private person would be. The Industrial Commission (North Carolina) denied the DOL's request to dismiss the claims, which the Court of Appeals (North Carolina) affirmed. The DOL sought further appellate review.

Issue:

Were the injured employees allowed to bring claims against the state agencies under the North Carolina Tort Claims Act for the alleged failure of the agencies to properly inspect and to adequately enforce state occupational standards at the injured employees' employer's plant?

Answer:

No

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed and remanded, holding that the injured employees and representatives were not entitled to bring claims against the state DOL or state OSHA, because the duties of the state agency were for the general public and not individuals and under the public duty doctrine only a special relationship or duty would support recovery by individuals, which had not been shown. The Court further held that there was no private cause of action created by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-4, which required the department to enforce inspection laws against employers.

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