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Laws v. Handy

Superior Court of Delaware

July 21, 2017

CARLITA LAWS and CHARLES LAWS, II, individually and as Administrators of the Estate of CHARLES LAWS, III, Plaintiffs,
v.
VALORIE HANDY, and HANDY'S LITTLE DISCIPLES, and BOLARIUS HANDY, and DELAWARE DEPARTMENT OF SERVICES FOR CHILDREN, YOUTH, AND THEIR FAMILIES, OFFICE OF CHILD CARE LICENSING, and VIVIAN MURPHY Defendants.

          Submitted: May 1, 2017

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROCANELLI, J.

          This is a wrongful death case arising from the death of 10-month-old Charles Laws, III ("Baby Charles") on January 28, 2015 at Handy's Little Disciples Home Daycare Center ("Daycare Center"), operated by Defendant Valorie Handy at a residence owned by Ms. Handy's husband, Defendant Bolarius Handy. Baby Charles was under Ms. Handy's supervision when Ms. Handy gave Baby Charles a lethal dose of Benadryl. Baby Charles died as a result of the medication administered by Ms. Handy.[1]

         This civil action is brought by Baby Charles' parents and estate ("Plaintiffs"). In addition to claims of negligence and wrongful death against the Handys, Plaintiffs assert claims of gross and wanton negligence against the Delaware Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, Office of Child Care Licensing ("Licensing Entity"), and Supervisor of Childcare Licensing Vivian Murphy ("Licensing Supervisor"). Specifically, Plaintiffs allege that the Licensing Entity and Licensing Supervisor caused Baby Charles' death by acting with gross and wanton negligence in licensing, certifying, and supervising Ms. Handy to operate the Daycare Center. (For ease of reference, the Court refers to the Licensing Entity and Licensing Supervisor collectively as "State Defendants.")

         The State of Delaware has appeared on behalf of State Defendants and has filed the Motion to Dismiss that is currently before the Court. Plaintiffs oppose State Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. To date, neither Ms. Handy[2] nor Mr. Handy[3] have filed a response to the Motion to Dismiss. This is the Court's Memorandum Opinion on State Defendants' Motion to Dismiss.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Baby Charles was born on March 16, 2014 and resided with Plaintiffs in Millsboro, Delaware. Plaintiffs placed Baby Charles in the Daycare Center during the workweek. On January 28, 2015, Plaintiffs left Baby Charles at the Daycare Center under Ms. Handy's supervision. Later that day, Ms. Handy administered a large dose of Benadryl to Baby Charles. Ms. Handy did not have legal authority to administer over-the-counter mediation and did not have the permission of Baby Charles' parents. Baby Charles died of diphenhydramine intoxication resulting from a Benadryl overdose.

         Unbeknownst to Plaintiffs, another infant had been seriously injured under Ms. Handy's care prior to Baby Charles' death. Specifically, two-month-old Jarod Coursey ("Baby Jarod") sustained permanent brain damage from shaken-baby syndrome while under Ms. Handy's supervision in 2001. Baby Jarod's injuries included subdural hematoma, retinal hemorrhaging, and cardiopulmonary arrest. Baby Jarod currently leads a life of total dependence as a result of the 2001 incident.[4]

         Plaintiffs allege that State Defendants acted with gross and wanton negligence in licensing Ms. Handy to provide childcare pursuant to Delaware law and by failing to supervise the Daycare Center following the 2001 incident involving Baby Jarod.

         II. APPLICABLE LAW AND LEGAL STANDARDS

         State Defendants argue that Plaintiffs' cause of action against State Defendants is barred by sovereign immunity and Section 4001 of the State Tort Claims Act ("Section 4001").[5] In addition, State Defendants assert that Plaintiffs claims against State Defendants are barred by the public duty doctrine.

          A. Superior Court Civil Rules 12(b)(1) & 12(b)(6).

         State Defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. Rule 12(b)(1) requires the Court to grant a motion to dismiss whenever it appears that the Court lacks jurisdiction over the claims asserted in the complaint.[6] "Notably, '[t]he burden of establishing the Court's subject matter jurisdiction rests with the party seeking the Court's intervention.'"[7] In considering a motion under Rule 12(b)(1), "the Court need not accept Plaintiffs' factual allegations as true and is free to consider facts not alleged in the complaint."[8]

         State Defendants have also moved to dismiss the Complaint pursuant to Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) must be decided solely on the allegations set forth in the complaint.[9] Unlike the standards for a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), the Court shall accept all well-pleaded allegations in the Complaint as true and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party.[10] Factual allegations, even if vague, are well-pleaded if they provide notice of the claim to the other party.[11] The Court should deny the motion to dismiss if the claimant "may recover under any reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible of proof."[12]

         B. The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.

         The Licensing Entity is eligible for sovereign immunity, which bars a lawsuit against the state or federal government in the absence of express consent from the legislature.[13] Delaware courts are not empowered to disregard the doctrine of sovereign immunity.[14] Rather, sovereign immunity must be waived pursuant to a clear manifestation of intent by the General Assembly.[15] The Delaware Supreme Court has found that the State waives sovereign immunity "to the extent that either the State insurance program was funded by direct appropriation (self-insurance) or that the State purchased commercially available insurance to cover the loss."[16]

         C. Section 4001 of the State Tort Claims Act.

         Section 4001 shields State employees, [17] such as the Licensing Supervisor, from civil liability if the State employee's conduct (i) arose out of and in connection with the performance of official duties involving the exercise of discretion, (ii) was performed in good faith, and (iii) was performed without gross or wanton negligence.[18] Plaintiffs must establish the absence of only one of these elements to defeat qualified immunity under Section 4001.[19]

         D. The Delaware Child Care Act.

         The Delaware Child Care Act ("DCCA")[20] authorizes State Defendants to license, regulate, and supervise any person or organization providing childcare services in the State of Delaware.[21] Child caretakers and daycare facilities are required by DCCA to obtain a license from State Defendants prior to offering childcare services.[22] DCCA requires State Defendants to conduct a "thorough investigation" before issuing a childcare license to ensure that the applicant meets certain DCCA standards.[23] In addition, Delaware law imposes a duty on the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families to monitor residential and nonresidential childcare facilities, including daycare centers and family daycare homes.[24]

         E. The Public Duty Doctrine.

         The judicially-created public duty doctrine bars certain claims against State officials that arise from discretionary conduct.[25] The public duty doctrine applies if the State official owes a duty to the public at large rather than to a specific individual when the alleged tortuous conduct is discretionary in nature.[26] To the extent that Plaintiffs' claims arise from the discretionary acts of State Defendants, the claims are barred by the public duty doctrine unless Plaintiffs can establish (i) an assumption of an affirmative duty to act by State Defendants; (ii) knowledge that inaction by State Defendants could lead to harm; (iii) some form of direct contact between State Defendants and the injured party; and (iv) justifiable reliance by Plaintiffs on an affirmative undertaking by State Defendants.[27]

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity Bars this Lawsuit against the Licensing Entity.

         Plaintiffs have the burden of establishing jurisdiction over the Licensing Entity[28] by overcoming the doctrine of sovereign immunity. In this case, Plaintiffs assert that sovereign immunity does not apply to the Licensing Entity because Section 4001 constitutes a "black-letter"[29] exception to sovereign immunity for grossly negligent acts. However, "[g]rossly negligent acts per se and the State Tort Claims comes (sic) into play only after an express intent to waive sovereign immunity has been identified."[30] In other words, allegations of gross negligence under Section 4001 are insufficient to overcome the Licensing Entity's sovereign immunity without an independent waiver of immunity.

         Plaintiffs cannot establish that the State has waived sovereign immunity as to the Licensing Entity for the allegations set forth in Plaintiffs' Complaint. Accordingly, Plaintiffs cannot meet the threshold requirement for this cause of action to proceed against the Licensing Entity. The Court finds that the Motion to Dismiss must be granted as to the Licensing Entity pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

         B.The Licensing Supervisor is Eligible for Qualified Immunity under Section 4001 and the Protection of the Public Duty Doctrine but the Lawsuit May ...


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