Judge: State supervisor can be sued in baby’s death at daycare

Valorie Handy

GEORGETOWN — A state supervisor may be sued for negligence in connection with the death of an infant at a Millsboro daycare two years ago but her agency cannot, a judge ruled last week.

A complaint against a supervisor of childcare licensing for the Delaware Children’s Department pointed to 34 supposed instances in which Vivian Murphy was allegedly negligent in approving and monitoring the daycare where a 10-month-old child died after being administered a lethal dose of Benadryl on Jan. 28, 2015.

Owner Valorie Handy was sanctioned by the state to run Little Disciples Home Daycare Center despite a 2-month-old boy suffering permanent brain damage due to shaken-baby syndrome while under her supervision in 2001, according to the 15-page order issued in Superior Court last Friday. She was found not guilty of assault by abuse in the matter.

The Children’s Department can’t be sued due to sovereign immunity protection “which bars a lawsuit against the state or federal government in the absence of express consent from the legislature,” Judge Andrea L. Rocanelli said in her decision.

“Delaware courts are not empowered to disregard the doctrine of sovereign immunity.”

Ms. Handy, 51 years old at the time of the incident, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide in the death of baby Charles and is scheduled for release from prison on March 28, 2019 based on good time served.

A case could possibly be made that Ms. Murphy acted with gross negligence when issuing Ms. Handy’s license, the court maintained, thus she could not be dismissed from the civil action.

Besides Ms. Handy, Handy’s Little Disciples and Bolarius Handy (who owned the residence where the death occurred) are named in the lawsuit filed by Carlita and Charles Laws Jr. on behalf of their late son.

Judge Rocanelli noted that “This conclusion is not a final determination regarding the licensing supervisor’s actions or a finding of gross or wanton negligence.

“Rather, the court finds that there is a reasonable conceivable set of circumstances susceptible to proof where plaintiffs could satisfy the applicable standard to overcome the licensing supervisor’s qualified immunity …”

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