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NC court rules magistrate can be sued for damages over misdirected commitment paperwork

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

A man who was shot by his adult nephew with a crossbow and paralyzed can sue a magistrate for damages over allegations that misdirected paperwork delayed his relative’s psychiatric commitment, a North Carolina appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The state Court of Appeals upheld a trial court ruling that found Paul Steven Wynn of Orange County could seek damages against a county magistrate who with a doctor’s petition issued a custody order for Robert Morris. A state government lawyer for magistrate Rex Frederick seeking the dismissal of Wynn’s lawsuit argued he was legally immune from liability because he was a government official.

In the unanimous ruling of a three-judge panel, the appeals court declared that such immunity is waived because magistrates are bonded through insurance paid for by the state, and because Frederick was sued in his official capacity only. This allows Wynn to seek the amount of the bond, which was $100,000, Judge Fred Gore wrote. The lower court decision also was upheld by Judges Richard Dietz and Hunter Murphy.

According to court documents, a physician who had treated Morris through a support program associated with the University of North Carolina had met with Morris and his mother early one day in December 2016 at their Mebane home. Dr. Austin Hall determined that Morris, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was dangerous to himself and others and needed to be involuntarily committed.

Hall sent a commitment petition and affidavit that day to the Orange County magistrate’s office, where Frederick issued an order and sent it UNC Hospitals, not the Orange County sheriff’s office.

The next morning, Hall called Morris’ mother, who said deputies had not picked up her son. Frederick told Hall he sent the order to UNC Hospitals because thought Morris was at the hospital, according to the opinion. A new order was issued that morning. By then Wynn had entered the house of his sister and nephew, unaware that Morris was experiencing an “acute psychotic episode” and had a crossbow, Tuesday’s opinion says.

Wynn was shot in the left side of the neck with an arrow, puncturing his cervical spine and spinal cord. He is a quadriplegic and unable to work, Wynn’s 2019 lawsuit said. He also sued the insurance company issuing Frederick’s bond.

State attorney Kathryn Shields has defended Frederick in the lawsuit. She wrote in late 2019 that it was reasonable for the magistrate to believe the order should have been returned to police at UNC Hospitals. Frederick also had no duty under the law to issue the order within a certain period of time, Shields wrote.

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