Our firm recently resolved wrongful death claims for families that we represent related to the Mitchell County North Carolina jail fire of May 2002. The Mitchell County Jail, located in Bakersville, burned, causing the deaths of seven inmates due to smoke inhalation. Several of the inmates, like our 21-year-old client Haley Thomas, were spending weekends in the jail for minor offenses. We have periodically mentioned the case as it moved through the appellate process.
Our initial investigation into the fire revealed that the state had failed to properly inspect the jail facility. This resulted in numerous fire and building code violations which led to the inmates’ deaths. Following our investigation, the North Carolina Department of Labor also investigated the fire. The Department determined that the state agency responsible for inspecting the jail for fire and building code violations had failed to adequately inspect the jail and to properly train its inspectors.
The Labor Department report determined that the area where the fire started should have been constructed of non-flammable materials or should have had a properly constructed fire wall within the building. Our expert established that if the jail had been properly constructed the fire would have quickly burned out without the loss of life. The state disputed the claims and argued that it was immune from suit under the Public Duty Doctrine. Under that Doctrine, an individual does not have a claim against the state for duties that are owed to the public at large.
The state initially filed a motion to dismiss before the Industrial Commission, the administrative body that hears claims against the State of North Carolina, and the motion was denied. The state appealed to the full Industrial Commission, which also denied the state’s motion to dismiss. An appeal was then taken to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. In a 2 to 1 decision, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that the state owed a special duty to inspect jail facilities for the benefit of inmates and that a breach of this duty had occurred. In a last ditch effort, the state filed an appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Following oral arguments, the Supreme Court ruled for our clients and held that the state did not have immunity from suit.
Following numerous months of discovery and disclosing experts, the state agreed to settle our clients’ claims. It has been our privilege to represent our clients in this matter and to change North Carolina law to provide legal remedies for those who have been injured as a result of the state’s failure to perform its statutory duties of inspection. Ben Baker from our firm handled this case and did an outstanding job for our clients. It was a long and hotly-contested case and fortunately the end result was a good one.
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