North Carolina EMT Has No Immunity Protection for Chapel Hill Death

A ruling this week in North Carolina has left an EMT without immunity protection in a suit by the family of a high school football player who died after practice in 2008.

Atlas Fraley, 17, died from complications related to dehydration and severe muscle cramps. Following football practice at Chapel Hill High School on August 12, 2008, he went home, felt ill, and called 911. EMT James Griffin from Orange County Emergency Services responded and concluded that Fraley’s condition did not warrant further treatment or transport.

Despite Fraley’s age, Griffin did not transport him, nor contact his parents to obtain a refusal. The age of consent in North Carolina is 18. Griffin gave Farley some instructions on how to relieve the symptoms and told him to call 911 if the symptoms did not improve.

When Fraley’s parents returned home, Atlas was not breathing, and was pronounced dead by responding EMS personnel. Griffin was subsequently suspended, and chose to resign in lieu of termination.

Atlas’s parents filed suit against Griffin, Orange County Emergency Services, and Orange County for wrongful death.  Both OCES and Orange County were dismissed from the suit based on sovereign immunity.

Griffin also sought to be dismissed from the suit based upon the fact that he was acting in an official capacity, and therefore was entitled to public official immunity. The trial court denied the motion in November, 2010, and Griffin appealed to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

The court’s analysis focused upon whether Griffin was a public official or a public employee. As interpreted under North Carolina case law, a public official exercises discretion and has immunity for his/her decisions, while a public employee carries out ministerial tasks and is liable for his/her negligence.

The court clarified the distinction between an official and an employee by citing case law that held that a public official (1) serves in a position created by the constitution or statutes;  (2) exercises a portion of the sovereign power; and (3) exercises discretion.

Based on the 3 point test, the court concluded that an EMT such as Griffin was not a public official, but rather was a public employee, and thus could be held personally liable for his negligence.

Here is a copy of the decision. Fraley v Griffin

Griffin may appeal the decision to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

A couple of bullet points just for the sake of clarity:

  • The court did not say that Griffin was negligent, nor that he is liable. It only ruled he has to stand trial.
  • The ruling is limited to North Carolina. The vast majority of states offer some level of immunity protection to emergency responders, (usually only for negligence). Most states do not leave a publicly employed EMT personally liable for negligence while allowing the state or municipal employer completely off the hook.
  • Most states recognize a distinction between a discretionary act and a ministerial act and provide immunity protection only for discretionary acts. However, states are all over the map when it comes to what they consider to be a discretionary act. Most states do not link discretionary acts to certain positions that are designated as “public officials” for purposes of immunity – but rather find that a given employee may at times act in a discretionary manner, and at other times act in a ministerial manner.

More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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