The Alabama Supreme Court recently returned a decision in the personal injury case of Morrow v. Caldwell that negligent government workers sued in their own capacity shouldn’t expect protection under the state’s statutory $100,000 damages cap.
Our Birmingham wrongful death attorneys recognize that this was an important decision in favor of families who have suffered the ultimate loss as a result of a government worker’s carelessness. And it means that the damages to which these families are entitled to receive can exceed that $100,000 limit that is otherwise imposed.
The death that gave rise to this case was that of a young boy who was playing outside at the Montgomery home of his great-grandmother.
According to court records, the facts of this case date to January 2009. At that time, the owner of a commercial building on Ripley Street wanted to have electrical service restored to the property, as it had been without power for approximately eight months. Because the property had been without power for so long, she was required to submit to an electrical inspection by a city worker.
The inspector stated he found no electrical defects or dangerous conditions regarding the electrical system, and approved the site for restoration of power, which was done at the end of the month.
Six months later, a young boy was playing outside near the home of his grandmother, who lived next door to the commercial property. He began to play on the concrete pad where the commercial building’s air conditioning system was located. When he came in contact with the broken chain link fence that surrounded the concrete pad, he was electrocuted.
A year later, his mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against numerous defendants, including the property owner and city inspector. The inspector, she held, had negligently, recklessly and/or wantonly inspected the premises and allowed electrical service to be restored when it wasn’t safe to do so.
The inspector claimed state immunity. In an amended complaint, the victim’s mother then sued the inspector in his individual capacity, saying that he was negligent and acted beyond the scope of his authority and fraudulently declared the property to be safe for electrical restoration. She claimed he did not follow protocol and procedures for conducting the inspection.
The worker filed a motion for summary judgement on the basis of state-agent immunity. The court denied his petition. He then filed a motion requesting that, prior to any trial, the court declare the statutory limitations of liability being $100,000, as per Ala. Code 1975 Chapter 11-74-190.
The trial court denied this request because it indicated that statutory damage caps would be applicable only if the inspector were being sued in his official capacity. However, he was being sued in his individual capacity, so the damage cap did not apply.
The inspector then requested that the Alabama Supreme Court provide certification of this question, or in other words, review the trial court’s ruling on this matter. The high court accepted.
The court ruled that because the worker was being sued in his individual capacity, he was not entitled to have damages capped, were he to be found liable for the boy’s death.
Morrow v. Caldwell, March 14, 2014, Alabama Supreme Court
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