Our firm represents two families who lost loved ones in a jail fire in Mitchell County, North Carolina on May 3, 2002. The fire started in a storage room that had been added on to the older jail facility many years before the fire. North Carolina statutes required the North Carolina Department for Health and Human Services to conduct bi-annual inspections of the jail facility, including this addition, to insure that all parts of the jail met all applicable fire and building codes. Nonetheless, the addition to the original jail facility did not meet North Carolina State building or fire codes. As a result of the fire on May 3, 2002, eight men being held in the facility died from smoke inhalation when the jailer was unable to unlock the second floor jail cell to allow the prisoners to get out of the fire.
Following this fire, the North Carolina Department of Labor conducted an investigation into the fire. The Department of Labor determined that the Department of Health and Human Services had breached its duty to properly inspect the Mitchell County Jail facility to insure that it met all applicable codes. The Department of Labor also determined that the inspectors who conducted jail facility inspections had not been properly trained to determine all code violations.
We filed suit on behalf of our clients against the State of North Carolina for failure to perform its statutory duties to inspect the Mitchell County Jail. In North Carolina, a suit of this nature is brought before an administrative board within the Department of Industrial Relations. Immediately after suit was filed, the State of North Carolina sought to dismiss our clients’ claims, asserting immunity under the public duty doctrine. The trial court denied the State’s request. North Carolina immediately filed an appeal with the full Industrial Commission in an effort to reverse the trial court’s decision. The full commission found in favor of the plaintiffs and denied the State’s motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ claims. The State of North Carolina then filed a further appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The North Carolina Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs’ claims could proceed against the State in this case. Not to be deterred, the State of North Carolina filed a final appeal to the State Supreme Court. On June 28, 2007, the Supreme Court rejected the State’s claim that it was immune from suit in this type of action and found that the plaintiffs could go forward with their actions.
These cases have been a long and difficult process for our clients and have been appealed by the State of North Carolina for nearly five years while the families have been unable to find out what happened to their family members on the night of the fire. We attempted to take sworn testimony from eyewitnesses while these appeals were pending, but the State blocked every effort we made to find out what happened the night of this fire. Now that the Supreme Court of North Carolina has held that the families’ claims can go forward, we finally will be able to help the families learn about the details of the fire and why their loved ones perished that night. Ben Baker is the lead lawyer on the case for our firm and has worked extremely hard to keep the cases on track.
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