COA: EMTs do not have public officer's immunity
In January 2010, after returning home from football practice, 17-year-old Atlas Fraley called 911 and reported that he was experiencing full body cramps and dehydration. His parents were at work at the time. Defendant James Griffin, an EMT, went to Atlas's home. Griffin conducted a brief examination of Atlas and determined his condition was not serious and that his pain was not severe. Defendant advised Atlas to orally hydrate and watched him do so successfully. Griffin then gave Atlas oral and written instructions to contact his parents and 911 if his symptoms worsened and left Atlas home alone. A few hours later, Atlas’s parents arrived home and found him lying on their living room. Orange County Emergency Services personnel responded and pronounced him dead. A cause of death could not be determined. Atlas's parents, as administrators of his estate, sued Griffin for wrongful death.
The issue before the Court was whether Griffin was entitled to public officer's immunity. In North Carolina, "public officers" are shielded from liability unless their actions are corrupt or malicious, whereas "public employees" can be held personally liable for mere negligence. In distinguishing between a public officer and a public employee, our courts have held that (1) a public office is a position created by the constitution or statutes; (2) a public official exercises a portion of the sovereign power; and (3) a public official exercises discretion, while public employees perform ministerial duties. Additionally, an officer is generally required to take an oath of office while an agent or employee is not required to do so.
Here, the Court determined that North Carolina statutes do not create the position of EMT. The Court also concluded that because EMTs are required to execute specific treatment protocol and cannot deviate from such protocol without physician approval, an EMT's duties are ministerial rather than discretionary. Therefore, the Court concluded, EMTs are not public officers, and Griffin could be liable in his individual capacity.
Related links: Record on appeal (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3); Fraleys' brief; Griffin's brief; amicus brief (NC Advocates for Justice); amicus brief (NC Ass'n of Rescue and EMS and NC Ass'n of EMS Administrators).