Stratton v. Commonwealth, 182 S.W.3d 516 (Ky. 2006)
Issue and Holding:
Whether the Cabinet for Families and Children is protected by the doctrine of governmental immunity from suit. The Court held yes, since the Cabinet’s investigations into allegations that a child was abused and its subsequent actions were discretionary, there was no waiver of immunity and the Cabinet was protected by the doctrine from father’s suit alleging negligence.
Sabrina Stratton died May of 1994 from injuries inflicted by her mother’s live-in boyfriend, Sherman Davis. The Cabinet was first notified of possible physical abuse of the deceased by her maternal grandmother. The same day a case worker and detective interviewed the child, her grandmother, her mother, and Davis. Her mother tried to explain away the injuries and Davis denied any wrong doing. A doctor examined the child and found that the injuries were too severe to have resulted from innocent falls. Thus, the case worker was able to substantiate the allegations of abuse, but could not identify the perpetrator.
The case worker filed a petition with the family court, alleging physical abuse of the child and the mother and Davis as the alleged perpetrators. At an emergency hearing, the mother and the child’s natural father, Stratton, agreed that Stratton should be granted temporary custody while the mother attended court ordered parenting classes. The case was then transferred to “ongoing” case worker.
At the next court hearing, the mother blamed the maternal grandmother for the abuse. Thereafter the maternal grandmother was limited to supervised visitation once a month. The child was then returned to the custody of her mother based on agreement of the parties and the court. Less than a month later the paternal grandmother called the abuse hotline to report noticeable facial injuries to the child. The CPS employee who took the report concluded that there was no information that would indicate anything other than an accidental injury. The case worker followed up with a home visit two days later, and both the child and her mother blamed the injuries on an accident. Four days later the child died as a result of those injuries.
Stratton, administrator for the child’s estate, filed suit against the Cabinet in the Board of Claims. Stratton alleged that the Cabinet’s negligence contributed to the death of the child. He argued that if the CPS employees had followed mandatory regulations and interviewed certain witnesses, they would have learned and substantiated that Davis was the abuser.
The Board of Claims dismissed the action based on governmental immunity, holding that the interviews were not ministerial or discretionary, but fell within KRS 44.073(13)(d) and (e) and that the Cabinet could not be held liable under traditional negligence theories. The Franklin Circuit Court rejected the Board’s interpretations and held that the Cabinet’s acts were ministerial and therefore governmental immunity was waived. The Court of Appeals reversed the circuit court, finding the Cabinet’s acts discretionary.
The Supreme Court granted discretionary review.
The Court noted that the Cabinet, as an agency operating under the direction and control of state government, is entitled to governmental immunity unless the immunity has been explicitly waived. The Board of Claims Act offers a limited waiver of governmental immunity regarding negligence claims filed with the Board. The waiver extends only to negligence claims involving ministerial acts, acts in which the agency has no discretion.
The applicable regulations in the instant case are outlined in section seven (7) of 905 KAR 1:330. The ministerial duties mandated by the regulations in this case were satisfied by the CPS case workers. Performing collateral interviews of individuals not mandated by the regulations was in the discretion of the case worker and therefore their decisions regarding those interviews are not actionable. Discretionary functions are protected by the doctrine of governmental immunity and do not fall under the limited waiver.
Thus, the Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.