CARLITA LAWS and CHARLES LAWS, II, individually and as Administrators of the Estate of CHARLES LAWS, III, Plaintiffs,
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
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.
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
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 nor Mr. Handy have filed a
response to the Motion to Dismiss. This is the Court's
Memorandum Opinion on State Defendants' Motion to
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
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.
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
APPLICABLE LAW AND LEGAL STANDARDS
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"). 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).
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. "Notably, '[t]he burden of
establishing the Court's subject matter jurisdiction
rests with the party seeking the Court's
intervention.'" 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."
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. 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. Factual allegations, even if vague, are
well-pleaded if they provide notice of the claim to the other
party. The Court should deny the motion to
dismiss if the claimant "may recover under any
reasonably conceivable set of circumstances susceptible of
The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity.
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. Delaware courts are not empowered to
disregard the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Rather,
sovereign immunity must be waived pursuant to a clear
manifestation of intent by the General
Assembly. 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
Section 4001 of the State Tort Claims Act.
4001 shields State employees,  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. Plaintiffs
must establish the absence of only one of these elements to
defeat qualified immunity under Section 4001.
The Delaware Child Care Act.
Delaware Child Care Act ("DCCA") authorizes
State Defendants to license, regulate, and supervise any
person or organization providing childcare services in the
State of Delaware. Child caretakers and daycare facilities
are required by DCCA to obtain a license from State
Defendants prior to offering childcare
services. DCCA requires State Defendants to
conduct a "thorough investigation" before issuing a
childcare license to ensure that the applicant meets certain
DCCA standards. 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
The Public Duty Doctrine.
judicially-created public duty doctrine bars certain claims
against State officials that arise from discretionary
conduct. 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. 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.
The Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity Bars this Lawsuit
against the Licensing Entity.
have the burden of establishing jurisdiction over the
Licensing Entity 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" 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." 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.
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
B.The Licensing Supervisor is Eligible for Qualified
Immunity under Section 4001 and the Protection of the Public
Duty Doctrine but the Lawsuit May ...