Court holds public employees have very limited responsibility for death resulting from alleged violation of mandatory child-abuse reporting requirement
Ricky Jones, Personal Representative of the Estate of Ava AnnMarie Jones, sued State Police officer Elaine Bitner, alleging that her negligent failure to report child endangerment resulted in the death of Ava, 2 years 8 months old. Ava was either poisoned with morphine or found the pills on a nightstand and took them. Her mother had sold morphine to a Straights Area Narcotics Enforcement informant and the P.R. of the Estate alleged that Bitner knew the mother was dealing narcotics from her home with the child present. The P.R. claimed that Bitner violated her duty under the "mandatory reporting provisions" of the Child Protection Law (CPL).The Defendant argued that she was immune from any liability because she had not been negligent in failing to suspect and report abuse or endangerment. She also argued that if she was negligent, the governmental immunity act protected her from liability because she was not "grossly negligent." Finally, she argued that in any event, since she wasn't the "primary" cause of the child's death, she enjoyed complete immunity for the death. The trial court disagreed and refused to grant summary disposition, so the narcotics officer appealed.
The assigned Court of Appeals panel included two staunch Republican insurance advocates. They ruled that the specific language of the CPL, which provides that a "law enforcement officer... who has reasonable cause to suspect abuse or neglect...shall make...a report...within 72 hours...[or be] civilly liable for the damages proximately caused by the failure" did not mean what it says. The Republican judges held that this straight-forward language did not mean what it appears to state: they held that the statute was subject to the governmental immunity act, and therefore the negligent reporter is not responsible unless his or her negligence could be defined as "willful and wanton" and the primary cause of the injury or death.