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Roberts v. United States

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Beaufort Division

July 28, 2015

LATTANNISHA ROBERTS, Plaintiff,
v.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant. CHRISTOPHER D. MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendants.

ORDER

DAVID C. NORTON, District Judge.

This matter is before the court on identical motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction filed by the government.[1] For the reasons set forth below, the court grants in part and denies in part the government's motion.

I. BACKGROUND

On February 24, 2012, Kalvin Hunt ("Hunt"), a Marine on involuntary leave while appealing his dishonorable discharge, was accompanied to the Beaufort Naval Hospital ("the naval hospital") by Edward Ray ("Ray"), an employee of the Beaufort County Office of Veteran's Affairs.[2] When Hunt and Ray arrived at the naval hospital, Nurse Saundra Smith ("Smith") came to offer assistance and meet with Hunt. While Smith was in the process of interviewing Hunt and scheduling an appointment for him to see a doctor the following Monday, Hunt began to rock back and forth in his chair and let out an exasperated kind of moan. When Smith asked Hunt if he wanted to hurt himself, he said that he did. At that time, Smith took Hunt and Ray to the emergency department.

Once in the emergency department, Hunt first saw triage nurse Janice McDonald ("Janice"). When Janice asked Hunt whether he had thoughts about hurting himself, he responded that he did, although he had no plan to hurt himself at that time. Janice informed Hunt that he would be evaluated by a psychiatrist and, depending on her judgment, a decision would be made whether to admit him. Janice turned Hunt over to her husband Joe McDonald ("Joe"), who is also a registered nurse in the emergency department. Joe accompanied Hunt to be evaluated by Dr. Christian Jansen ("Dr. Jansen"). Dr. Jansen noted that Hunt had suicidal thoughts and thoughts of hurting others, but no specific plans. At that time, Dr. Jansen called for a psychiatric technician from the naval hospital's mental health unit to evaluate Hunt.

Arthur Manning ("Manning"), a psychiatric technician, evaluated Hunt and recommended that Hunt be admitted. The on-duty psychiatrist, Dr. Beverly Hendelman ("Dr. Hendelman"), accepted the recommendation and made the decision to hospitalize Hunt. Dr. Hendelman then relayed her decision to Dr. Jansen. The plan was to admit Hunt to nearby Beaufort Memorial Hospital because the naval hospital did not provide in-patient mental health treatment.

About the time that Dr. Jansen was in the process of determining bed availability at Beaufort Memorial, Ray asked Joe if he and Hunt could go outside for some fresh air, and Joe said that they could. Once outside, Hunt removed some items of clothing and ran towards the front gate. A security guard saw Hunt running but did not stop him. Ray attempted to pursue Hunt, but was unable to catch him. Ray approached the front gate and described the events that had just occurred to a group of security guards. A security guard called the Beaufort County Sheriff's Department to report the incident.

At the same time, the Town of Port Royal Fire Department was responding to an emergency call at a nearby apartment complex. Hunt got into the still-running and unattended fire truck and began driving it down Ribaut Road at high speed. Hunt collided with many cars, including one driven by plaintiff Lattannisha Roberts ("Roberts"). Hunt also struck and killed pedestrian Justin Miller, whose brother, plaintiff Christopher Miller ("Miller"), was nearby.

On December 4, 2013, Miller and Roberts filed the present actions, alleging causes of action against the government for negligence and negligent undertaking of duty.[3] On November 14, 2015, the government filed a motion to dismiss in both cases. Miller and Roberts each responded on December 19, 2014, and the government filed a reply on May 22, 2015. These motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for the court's review.

II. STANDARD

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), a party may move to dismiss for "lack of subject-matter jurisdiction." The determination of subject matter jurisdiction must be made at the outset before any determination on the merits. Steel Co. v. Citizens for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83 (1998). "The plaintiff bears the burden of persuasion if subject matter jurisdiction is challenged under Rule 12(b)(1)." Williams v. United States, 50 F.3d 299, 304 (4th Cir. 1995). If the plaintiff cannot overcome this burden, the claim must be dismissed. Welch v. United States, 409 F.3d 646, 651 (4th Cir. 2005). In ruling on a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, "the court may consider exhibits outside the pleadings" and "is free to weigh the evidence and satisfy itself as to the existence of its power to hear the case." Williams, 50 F.3d at 304 (internal citations and quotations omitted).

III. DISCUSSION

The government moves to dismiss plaintiffs' claims against it for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant Rule 12(b)(1).[4] The government contends that the plaintiffs' claims are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Gov't's Mot. 8.

It is well settled that the United States, as a sovereign, is immune from suit except to the extent that it has consented to be sued. Frahm v. United States, 492 F.3d 258, 262 (4th Cir. 2007) (citing United States v. Sherwood, 312 U.S. 584, 586 (1941)). Absent a waiver, sovereign immunity shields the federal government and its agencies from suit. FDIC v. Myer, 510 U.S. 471, 475 (1994). Sovereign immunity is jurisdictional in nature and the terms of the ...


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