Two sisters reported that they were abused by their grandparents while they were entrusted to the legal custody of the Office of Children's Services (OCS). The sisters sued OCS, and a jury awarded them substantial damages, concluding that OCS was responsible for 95% of their damages and that their grandparents were not responsible for any of their damages. On appeal, OCS argues that this verdict should be set aside. Because the evidence supporting the jury's allocation of fault was so insubstantial as to make the verdict plainly unreasonable, we conclude that OCS is entitled to a new trial.
II. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS
Alecia Mullins was born in 1990, and Shayna Mullins was born in 1992. Throughout their childhood, their mother, Angela McCoy, abused drugs and alcohol and was involved in a violent and abusive relationship with her then-husband, Chris McCoy.
In September 1998, after receiving a report that Alecia and Shayna were at risk of immediate physical harm from Chris McCoy, OCS
While Alecia and Shayna were living with their grandparents, they were seeing a counselor to help them cope with the abuse they had experienced when they were younger. The counselor, Linda Jacobsen, noted that Alecia was experiencing night terrors, and that night terrors could be a sign of sexual abuse. But Jacobsen testified at trial that she never suspected that anyone was abusing Alecia or Shayna while she was counseling them. She wrote a letter reporting her observations to Alecia and Shayna's guardian ad litem and an OCS employee.
In March 2001, Alecia and Shayna revealed that their grandfather had been sexually abusing them for some time. Alecia testified that the abuse lasted between three and a half and four years.
Jack left the home immediately after the abuse was disclosed. He pleaded no contest to three counts of sexual abuse of a minor shortly thereafter. Although Jack never returned to his home, there was testimony that Barbara met with him in a parking lot while Alecia and Shayna were present and frequently spoke with him on the phone in the evenings.
After Jack's abusive behavior was disclosed, Barbara became angry and violent. Alecia testified that Barbara slapped her in the face after Alecia told her something that Barbara "didn't like." Barbara also hit Alecia and Shayna with wooden spoons. OCS investigated these incidents but found that they did not constitute physical abuse. Some witnesses testified that Barbara's behavior reflected the fact that she was struggling to believe and accept that Jack had abused her grandchildren.
In June 2002, at her request, Barbara's guardianship was terminated and Alecia and Shayna were returned to their mother. However, this placement was short-lived; the family's home life quickly deteriorated, and the children were removed from their mother again in September 2003 when Angela was arrested for assaulting Chris.
In January 2004, Alecia was placed with a friend's family. And in the same year, Shayna was placed with a different foster family. In 2006, Shayna was placed with her biological father in Minnesota, and Alecia was permanently placed with two relatives in Washington. Both children were released from OCS custody following these placements.
Alecia and Shayna filed a complaint against OCS and Jack Dominick in the Kenai Superior Court. They alleged that OCS had a duty to protect them from harm and that OCS negligently breached that duty. As to Jack, they alleged that he committed assault and battery against them and negligently harmed them.
During trial, the Mullinses developed several theories under which the jury could hold OCS liable. They argued, among other things, that OCS negligently failed to investigate Linda Jacobsen's 1999 report that Alecia was suffering from night terrors; that OCS failed to provide Alecia and Shayna with adequate mental health services while they were in OCS custody; that OCS negligently investigated reports that Barbara was physically abusing Alecia; and that OCS negligently failed to remove Alecia and Shayna from Barbara's custody after Barbara became abusive.
Before trial, OCS moved for partial summary judgment on the ground that several of the Mullinses' claims were based on conduct protected by discretionary function immunity. Although the superior court agreed that OCS "is entitled to immunity for discretionary functions on planning and policy matters," it concluded that "[a]pplication of the immunity provided by law will involve a claim-by-claim analysis based on the evidence presented" and that "the plaintiffs have asserted and presented sufficient potential evidence to withstand dismissal at this time." Therefore, the court denied the agency's motion but permitted OCS to "renew its request for immunity as to particular claims at the close of plaintiffs' case in chief."
Accordingly, OCS moved for a directed verdict based on discretionary function immunity at the close of the Mullinses' case in chief. The court denied that motion as well, concluding that the scope of OCS's liability would be addressed in the jury instructions. The court instructed the jury:
OCS did not object to these instructions.
The jury returned a verdict stating that OCS was negligent with respect to both Alecia and Shayna and that the agency's negligence
The jury awarded Alecia $350,000 in future economic damages, $500,000 in past non-economic damages, and $150,000 in future non-economic damages to Alecia and $400,000 in future economic damages, $500,000 in past non-economic damages, and $150,000 in future non-economic damages to Shayna. It allocated 95% of the fault for these damages to OCS, 5% to Angela McCoy, and none to either Barbara or Jack.
OCS moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial, arguing that the jury's verdict was "contrary to the weight of the evidence, internally inconsistent, and plainly motivated by passion and prejudice." In particular, the agency argued that "the jury's allocation of zero fault to Jack Dominick is not supported by the evidence." The superior court denied the motion.
A. The Evidence Supporting The Jury's Allocation Of Fault Was So Insubstantial That The Verdict Was Plainly Unreasonable.
OCS argues that it was error to deny its motion for a new trial because the jury's allocation of 95% of the fault for the Mullinses' harm to OCS and 0% to Barbara and Jack Dominick was "irrational and against the weight of the evidence." The Mullinses respond that the allocation was proper for two reasons: first, because the Mullinses "made it clear that they were only pursuing negligence claims against OCS for its action and inactions following disclosure" of Jack's sexual abuse;
The denial of a motion for a new trial is reviewed for abuse of discretion.
Alaska Statute 09.17.080(a) provides:
"In determining the percentages of fault, the trier of fact shall consider both the nature of the conduct of each person at fault, and the extent of the causal relation between the conduct and the damages claimed."
Contrary to their representations on appeal, the Mullinses' arguments at trial were not limited to OCS's actions following the disclosure of Jack's sexual abuse on March 7, 2001. In particular, the Mullinses argued that a 1999 psychological assessment of Alecia, which suggested that Alecia's night terrors were symptomatic of sexual abuse, gave OCS notice that Alecia was suffering from sexual abuse at that time. And during closing argument, the Mullinses asked for $500,000 each in non-economic damages to compensate them for the year and a half of "preventable sexual abuse" that occurred between
The Mullinses also argue that it was proper for the jury to allocate 95% of the fault to OCS because OCS's negligence enabled Barbara and Jack to commit torts against the Mullinses. But courts in other jurisdictions have held that it is irrational to assign the majority of fault to a negligent tortfeasor when both negligent and intentional tortfeasors are responsible for harm suffered by a plaintiff.
For example, in Pamela B. v. Hayden, in which a rape victim sued the owner and the manager of the apartment building in which the rape occurred, a jury allocated 95% of the fault to the owner and manager and only 4% to the rapist.
The California Court of Appeal overturned a similar allocation of fault in Scott v. County of Los Angeles.
In this case, the jury was instructed that Jack committed at least one act of sexual abuse against both Shayna and Alecia, and there was exhaustive testimony at trial about the abuse committed by both Jack and Barbara. Given this evidence, it was simply irrational to conclude that Jack and Barbara were zero percent responsible for the results of the intentional (and even criminal) acts that they committed.
We therefore remand for a new trial. Because the special verdict form instructed the jury to award damages caused only by the conduct of the persons it found were liable to the Mullinses, and the jury concluded that neither Jack nor Barbara caused harm to the Mullinses, it did not award damages based on Jack's and Barbara's conduct. Therefore, the new trial must revisit damages as well as allocation of fault.
B. The Superior Court Should Examine The Mullinses' Allegations Of Negligence To Determine If OCS's Actions Are Protected By Discretionary Function Immunity.
OCS also argues in its appeal that the trial court erred by permitting the jury to find it was liable for negligently performing
Because we reverse on the ground that the jury's allocation of fault was irrational, we do not need to decide whether the superior court's approach to discretionary function immunity was plainly erroneous. However, we take this opportunity to clarify the proper procedure for ensuring that the jury does not hold the state liable for its discretionary acts.
Alaska Statute 09.50.250 provides that a person may bring an action in tort against the State of Alaska in any state court with jurisdiction over that claim. However,
Two varieties of agency action are not covered by discretionary function immunity: those involving no discretion and those involving "only discretion free from policy considerations."
The first category includes actions that are required by agency regulations or policy. For example, in State, Department of Corrections v. Cowles, we held that, because Department of Corrections policy requires a parole officer to initiate a parole revocation proceeding in response to a "serious violation,"
The second category includes actions that do not require the consideration of broad social, economic, and political policy factors. For example, once the state has made the policy decision to maintain a highway for winter travel, its actions implementing that decision — such as determining how many workers or how much equipment should be used to maintain the highway — are not immune.
Applying these principles, it appears that the jury instructions given in this trial did not adequately implement discretionary function immunity. In Instruction No. 28, the superior court wrote:
As OCS notes, this instruction suggests that OCS may be held liable for failing to carry out its "duties," discretionary function immunity notwithstanding. "[D]uties" appears to refer to the eleven duties listed in Jury Instruction No. 23. But at least one of those duties involves discretionary functions.
For example, Instruction No. 23 provides that OCS has a duty "to protect children in the legal custody or supervision of OCS." The pre-1999 version of the OCS Child Protective Services Manual
But this broad, aspirational policy statement cannot be a basis for liability. It calls for no specific action and in no way cabins the discretion of OCS officials in carrying out the agency's mission.
In Cowles, we explained that "the allegedly negligent decisions in a particular case must be examined individually to determine if they are" protected by discretionary function immunity.
We also note that the version of the OCS Child Protective Services Manual entered into the record was largely superseded in July 1999. That version of the Manual does not govern OCS's actions after the date it became obsolete. On remand, when it performs its discretionary function analysis, the superior court must look to the version of the Child Protective Services Manual that was in effect at the time of each of OCS's allegedly negligent actions.
The judgment of the superior court is REVERSED and this case REMANDED for a new trial.