Vonner v. State Department of Public Welfare

273 So. 2d 252 (1973)

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Vonner v. State Department of Public Welfare

Louisiana Supreme Court
273 So. 2d 252 (1973)

Facts

Gracie Vonner (plaintiff) had four children: Michael, Pamela, Christopher, and Johnny (the children). In the summer of 1968, the Department of Public Welfare (DPW) (defendant) placed the children in foster care in the home of Willie and Ethel Bradford (defendants). About a year later, Michael, then 13 years old, and Pamela, then 12 years old, repeatedly ran away from the Bradford home. Michael and Pamela told DPW employees that Ethel beat the children, but Ethel denied it, and DPW believed Ethel. The last time Michael and Pamela ran away, they were placed in a detention home because they refused to return to the Bradford home. The detention home’s supervisor was informed of the allegations and did not observe any injuries on Michael or Pamela’s bodies. DPW workers did not further investigate the claims or arrange for a doctor to examine the children for injuries. DPW regulations required DPW’s employees to visit foster homes every two months, but employees visited the children only sporadically and mainly in response to Michael and Pamela’s running away. Gracie complained to DPW employees that Ethel mistreated the children, but DPW dismissed Gracie’s concerns because the children seemed well cared-for and DPW considered Gracie to be unreliable. In January 1970, Ethel beat five-year-old Johnny to death. DPW employees removed Christopher, then six years old, from the Bradford home. Christopher’s body was covered in visible wounds, and doctors discovered that he had numerous broken bones in various stages of healing. DPW regulations required foster children to receive a medical examination every 12 months, but neither Johnny nor Christopher had visited a doctor during the 19 months they lived with Ethel and Willie. Gracie sued DPW, Ethel, and Willie for damages resulting from Johnny’s murder. The trial court found that DPW was not liable because DPW employees could have reasonably believed that Ethel was not mistreating the children and there was not a preponderance of the evidence to show that DPW’s failure to follow its guidelines was the proximate cause of Johnny’s death. The trial court found that Ethel was solely liable for Johnny’s death and awarded damages of $4,500. Gracie appealed. The court of appeals affirmed. Gracie appealed again, arguing, among other things, that DPW was also liable for Johnny’s murder. The Louisiana Supreme Court granted certiorari as to the issue of DPW’s liability, among other issues.

Rule of Law

Issue

Holding and Reasoning (Tate, J.)

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