Special Duty Rule - State Governmental Immunity
The Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families is within the executive branch of state government. G.L. 1956 42-72-1(a).
Its purpose is to promote, safeguard and protect the social well-being of the state's children. G.L. 1956 42-72-2.
Generally, the public-duty doctrine shields governmental entities such as the DCYF "from tort liability arising out of discretionary governmental actions that by their nature are not ordinarily performed by private persons." See Schultz v. Foster-Glocester Regional School District, 755 A.2d 153, 155 (R.I. 2000) (per curiam) (citing Haley v. Town of Lincoln, 611 A.2d 845, 849 (R.I. 1992)).
However, Rhode Island caselaw recognizes three exceptions to this immunity enjoyed by state governments. Id.
The special-duty rule provides that a governmental entity will be liable for actions taken in the course of their public functions when "the plaintiffs have had some form of prior contact with state officials 'who then knowingly embarked on a course of conduct that endangered the plaintiffs, or they have otherwise specifically come within the knowledge of the officials so that the injury to that particularly identified plaintiff can be or should have been foreseen.'" Id. (citing Kuzniar v. Keach, 709 A.2d 1050, 1054 (R.I. 1998)).
In order to prove a special duty, the plaintiff must establish by a preponderance of the evidence that:
(1) one or more officials had some form of prior contact with or other knowledge about plaintiff or his situation before the alleged negligent act occurred
(2) officials thereafter took some action directed toward plaintiff or his interests or failed to act in some way that was potentially injurious to plaintiff's person or property,
(3) injury to plaintiff or his interests was a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the governmental entity's action or inaction. See Kuzniar, 709 A.2d at 1056.
In order for an act to be considered negligent as to a certain defendant, the risk reasonably to be perceived must be within the range of apprehension. See Radigan v. W. J. Halloran Co., 97 R.I. 122, 128, 196 A.2d 160, 163 (1963) (citing Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad, 248 N.Y. 339, 344, 162 N.E. 99 (1928)).
"A defendant may reasonably be held bound to provide against what from usual experience is likely to happen, but not against unusual or unlikely or the remote or slightly probable event." Mercurio v. Burrillville Racing Association, 95 R.I. 417, 420, 187 A.2d 665, 667 (1963).