Bynum v. Wilson County – Sovereign Immunity a Challenge to Overcome

Sovereign immunity of governmental entities and employees can be a difficult hurdle to overcome. It essentially holds that the government cannot be held liable for personal injury or wrongful death in many cases. steps1

In Florida, there are exceptions or waivers to sovereign immunity, per Florida Statute 768.28, though there are strict requirements, such as specified notice to certain parties and tight statutory time limits.

Boca Raton injury lawyers know that sometimes this hurdle can still prove difficult, as the recent case of Bynum v. Wilson County illustrates. It’s important if you are considering suing a government entity that your attorney have the necessary training and experience. The Bynum case went before the North Carolina Supreme Court recently, but many of the same legal principles are applicable here in Florida. The state high court’s decision reversed both the trial court and court of appeals, which had denied the county’s request for summary judgment on the basis of sovereign immunity.

According to court records, the county leased an office building from a private firm to house a number of its divisions and departments. Those rooms house county commission meetings, the inspections department, the water department, finance department, human resources, planning and the county manager. The building was open to the public.

Two years after the city first leased the property, the plaintiff visited the building to pay a water bill. He walked up the front steps outside, went to the second floor and then paid his bill. As he exited the building, he fell while walking down the front steps.

As a result of that fall, both of his legs as well as his right arm were permanently paralyzed.

Later that year, he filed a complaint against the county alleging his injuries had been caused by the county’s negligent maintenance of the building. He later amended the complaint to add his wife as a plaintiff and the private owner of the building as a defendant.

He specifically alleged the defendants failed to inspect, maintain and repair the walk and that it failed to meet the state’s building codes, which required installation of a handrail. Additionally, he asserted the county failed to make itself aware of and warn of hidden dangers and failed to make the building safe and accessible to the public.

The trial court denied the defendants motion for summary judgment, and that ruling was affirmed by the appellate court.

The case then when to the state high court.

In the meantime, the plaintiff died, and his wife continued the action on her own behalf and on behalf of the estate.

The plaintiffs argued before the court that because the man went to the building to pay his water bill, and the negligence is alleged in connection with operation of a water system, the function of the building was proprietary in nature and the principle of sovereign immunity doesn’t apply.

However, the state high court disagreed, saying the issue depends on whether a building is serving a governmental or proprietary function.

Here, the court reasoned, the defendants were attempting to base the availability of immunity upon the nature of the plaintiff’s involvement with the governmental entity – not solely on the character of the municipality’s acts on the property.

The court found that because the county’s operation of the building was governmental in nature, the defendant was entitled to summary judgment on the basis of sovereign immunity.

If you have been injured in an accident in Boca Raton, contact the Hollander Law Firm at 888-751-7770 for a free and confidential consultation. There is no fee unless we win.

Additional Resources:

Bynum v. Wilson County, June 12, 2014, North Carolina Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Car Accident Lawsuit Involving Rental Car Company to Proceed, May 20, 2014, Boca Raton Personal Injury Lawyer