Court refuses to apply governmental immunity limitations to claim of constitutional tort
Erika Rodwell sued the Department of Human Services, Wayne County Protective Services and two social worker employees of the latter, after her son was beaten to death by his father. Rodwell alleged, and the record supported her claim, that her son Eryck had been severely beaten by his father in November of 2005. Further, the beating was immediately reported to authorities by Eryck's physicians. Nevertheless, it had not been investigated within 30 days, as required by law, and Eryck was beaten to death by his father on January 10 of 2006. Rodwell also alleged that it was customary within the Defendant agency to ignore the 30-day response period.
Eryck's mother alleged that the inaction, negligence and statutory violation by the social workers constituted a violation of Eryck's constitutional right to protection under the pertinent statute. The Court of Claims judge did not address the question of constitutional violation and instead dismissed the mother's claim because she had not complied with the statutory duty to give notice to the State of her family's potential claim within 12 months of the alleged injury.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals unanimously rejected this approach to the case. It pointed out that constitutional violations or "constitutional torts" are not governed by the normal rules of "sovereign immunity." A state enjoys the right to limit its own, and its employees' liability for the personal injuries they cause under normal circumstances. If the injury is the result of "a violation of a constitutionally protected right by the government," however, the state cannot enact legislation to protect itself from responsibility for the violation: the constitutional rights have primacy. Similarly, state-enacted procedures (such as the notice provision applicable to personal injury claims) do not apply to limit a victim's resort to the court system in the event of constitutional violation. Therefore, the case was sent back to the Court of Claims to determine whether the family's claim should go forward, regardless of the procedural failure to file a formal notice.