S.C. High Court Rules State Responsible fro Contractors’ Work

August 22, 2006

The South Carolina Supreme Court has reversed a lower court decision, ruling that the state is still responsible for providing reasonable care to patients even when it contracts work out to private vendors.

In 1997, Lexington County resident Brenda Bryant sued the Babcock Center and the state Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, claiming that her 21-year-old mentally retarded daughter was raped by at least one man after she left a Babcock home with them in 1995.

Her daughter, referred to in court papers as “Madison,” has the emotional and intellectual maturity of a 7- to 10-year-old, Bryant has claimed. While her daughter lived at the group home, staffers made no attempt to discourage her from “ever-increasing levels of inappropriate sexual contact” with two men, according to court papers.

Babcock Center officials said the sex was consensual, and neither man was criminally prosecuted. According to court papers, Madison left Babcock Center’s care in April 1996 to live with her mother.

Babcock, a 40-year-old, private, nonprofit corporation in Columbia, contracts with the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs to provide housing and medical services for people with autism, mental retardation, head and spinal cord injuries and other disabilities.

The state had claimed it had no duty of care to Madison because she voluntarily admitted herself to state care and that Babcock is only a contractual service provider. Justices disagreed, saying in their ruling that “Babcock Center and its employee have a common law duty to exercise reasonable care in supervising and providing care and treatment.”

The Supreme Court said Circuit Judge Casey Manning erred in ordering summary judgment in favor of the state in 2004, rather than allowing a jury trial, and sent the case back to the circuit court for a decision.

Orrin G. Briggs, the attorney who represented Bryant and her daughter, said the ruling could have “far-reaching implications for all agencies that render care to people.”

An attorney with Turner, Padget, Graham & Laney, the Columbia law firm representing Babcock, said his client plans to file a petition for a rehearing before the state Supreme Court. Thorne Barrett declined to comment further, pending the rehearing.

A call to Columbia attorney Andrew Lindemann, who represents the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs, was not immediately returned.

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