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I.H. v. County of Lehigh

July 7, 2010


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 2-04-cv-03890) District Judge: Honorable Timothy R. Rice.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ambro, Circuit Judge


Argued October 1, 2009

Before: AMBRO, GARTH and ROTH, Circuit Judges


In December 2002, a car accident paralyzed a foster care child, I.H. A jury found that his foster father's negligent driving caused I.H.'s injury. The single issue before us in this tragic case is whether a private foster care agency can be vicariously liable for the ordinary negligence of a foster parent. The District Court held no, and granted the foster care agency's motion for summary judgment on this issue. We affirm.

I. Facts

In November 1998, a court determined I.H., then three years old, was a "dependent child." As a result, Lehigh County took legal and physical custody of him.

With the Lutheran Home at Topton's assistance, Lehigh County placed I.H. with foster parents, Peter and Atlanta Norton.*fn1 The County had contracted with the Home to aid with foster child placement and related supervision. The Contract of Service (the "Service Contract") between the parties imposed several obligations on the Home, including:

supervising each foster child's placement; submitting to the County individual service plans, progress reports, discharge summaries, and other written reports required by the County or regulations pertaining to each foster child; submitting to the County medical, dental[,] and educational information; and providing notification to the County if it proposes changing a foster child's placement from one foster home to another.

In exchange for providing these services, the Home received a daily fee of $43.75 for each child under its supervision. In turn, it paid its foster parents $17.00 per day.

Prior to I.H.'s placement, the Home entered into a Foster Care Placement Contract of Agreement (the "Placement Agreement") with the Nortons. In it, the Nortons promised "to receive a foster child [into their home] . . . and to be responsible to meet [his] physical, social[,] and emotional needs." It also contained baseline requirements intended to guide I.H.'s care. Many of these provisions incorporated specific items from the Service Contract (including various state regulations). However, the Placement Agreement included additional requirements imposed by the Home itself. The Nortons also received a Foster Care Handbook (the "Handbook"), which outlined the family's obligations in greater detail. In the end, the parties agreed that "it is the responsibility of the Home and foster family to work together on behalf of [I.H.]" Importantly, both the Home and the Nortons had the power to terminate the Placement Agreement with reasonable notice.

At various times the Home was quite active in supervising I.H.'s care. For instance, shortly after I.H.'s placement, the Home received reports that the Nortons were using inappropriate methods to discipline and toilet train him. These methods violated the Nortons' obligations under their Placement Agreement, as well as related Pennsylvania law.*fn2 In response, the Home met with the Nortons and counseled them on proper disciplinary methods.

A few months later, I.H. and his foster brothers were swimming in the Nortons' pool. They had just returned home from a party. While unsupervised, I.H. nearly drowned. Mr. Norton pulled the child from the pool, and Mrs. Norton administered life-saving CPR. As a result of this incident, the County and I.H.'s court-appointed guardian instructed the Home to increase the frequency of its in-house visits with the foster family. They also directed the Home to provide additional training to the Nortons and use their supervisory authority to intervene further, as needed.

In December 2002, Mr. Norton was bringing I.H. home from daycare. During that trip, Mr. Norton was momentarily distracted when I.H. bit Thomas (Mr. Norton's son) on the arm. Mr. Norton glanced in his rearview mirror to see what was happening and to reprimand the boys. With this distraction, he crossed the center line of the road and hit an oncoming car. Thomas was killed, and Mr. Norton was severely injured. I.H. was rendered paraplegic.

II. Procedural History

In August 2004, I.H., through his guardian ad litem, filed an action against Mr. Norton, Lehigh County, and the Home to recover for his injuries. I.H. brought the following claims in his initial Complaint: 1) ordinary negligence against Norton; 2) constitutional violations against Lehigh County for alleged deliberate indifference; and 3) direct liability against the Home for negligent placement and supervision. Even an Amended Complaint did not allege that the Home was vicariously liable for Norton's negligence, but I.H.'s later summary judgment motion referred to it.*fn3

In March 2006, I.H. filed a Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The District Court denied his motion on the ground that genuine issues of material fact existed as to whether Norton was negligent. In October 2006, the Home and Lehigh County filed motions for Partial Summary Judgment. The District Court granted both motions. In its opinion, the Court addressed the merits of I.H.'s vicarious liability claim, concluding that it "fails as a matter of law because the requisite master-servant relationship does not exist between the Home and Peter Norton." The Court reasoned that most of the rules imposed on Norton in the Placement Agreement and the Handbook were the product of state regulations. It added that this setting of state-mandated standards and goals addressed the results of the work and not the manner in which it was conducted, leaving the Nortons free to make the same decisions for I.H. that they would make for their own children on a daily basis. (The Court further held that the Home's actions were not the proximate cause of and Norton. After initially denying this request, the Court sua sponte vacated its decision and certified this matter for appeal. We denied the request.

I.H.'s claim against Norton continued to trial. The jury returned a unanimous verdict, finding Norton negligent and awarding $28,750,000 in damages. After entry of a final judgment, I.H. appealed the District Court's summary judgment order from February 2007. I.H. limited his appeal to the Court's dismissal of his vicarious liability claim against the Home.

III. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

The District Court had jurisdiction to hear this case under 28 U.S.C. ยง 1331. We have jurisdiction ...

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