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Laska v. Anoka County

May 17, 2005

KATHERINE I. LASKA, APPELLANT,
v.
ANOKA COUNTY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, GINGER R. FLOHAUG, RESPONDENT.



Anoka County District Court File No. C1038400.

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

An individual who accepts the entrustment of a group of vulnerable individuals owes a legal duty of care to each member of that group.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robert H. Schumacher, Judge

Reversed and remanded

Considered and decided by Hudson, Presiding Judge; Schumacher, Judge; and Minge, Judge.

OPINION

Appellant Katherine I. Laska's infant daughter Hannah died while napping in a home day care operated by Joyce Jeffrey and staffed, on the day of Hannah's death, by Jeffrey and her daughter, respondent Ginger R. Flohaug. On appeal from the district court's judgment dismissing her wrongful-death negligence action against Flohaug, Laska argues the court erred by concluding that Flohaug owed Hannah no duty of care. We reverse the grant of summary judgment and remand for trial on the merits.

FACTS

In 1983, Jeffrey obtained a license from Anoka County to operate a family day care in her home in Coon Rapids. See Minn. Stat. § ch. 245A.03, subd. 1 (2004) (charging commissioner of Minnesota Department of Human Services with licensing of human services programs, including family day care facilities); .16, subd. 1 (authorizing commissioner of human services to delegate authority to counties and private agencies to issue day care licenses). Minn. R. 9502.0367 (2003) establishes child/adult ratios and age-distribution restrictions for different licensing categories; at all times relevant to this appeal, Jeffrey held a class C2 license, which authorizes a single adult to care for 12 children, of whom no more than two may be infants (under 12 months) or toddlers (between 12 and 30 months); of those two, only one may be an infant.

Day-care providers may apply for a periodic variance from compliance with the child/adult ratio and age-distribution restrictions by submitting a written request to the county identifying, among other things, "the specific equivalent alternative measures which the applicant or provider will provide so the health, safety, and protection of children in care are ensured if the variance is granted." Minn. R. 9502.0335, subp. 8a(A)(4) (2003).

In 1991 and 1992, Jeffrey requested and received variances to allow her to care for extra children during the summer months. As to the "specific alternative measures" she planned to take to ensure the children's safety, Jeffrey indicated on each request that she would receive caregiving assistance from her daughter, Ginger Jeffrey (now known as Ginger Flohaug), born in 1977. On the 1992 application, Jeffrey wrote that her daughter would "be very happy to have a summer job at home." No other assistance or alternative measure was indicated on any form. In 1995, Flohaug moved to Duluth to attend college.

Laska gave birth to Hannah Laska in June 2000. In July Hannah began attending the Jeffrey day care. On August 15, Jeffrey submitted a variance request for the two-week period between August 21 and September 3, when, she wrote, she would have "[one] toddler too many"; that is, of the 12 children in her care, she would have one infant (Hannah), two toddlers (instead of the one permitted pursuant to her C2 license), and nine older children. As she had done previously, Jeffrey referenced her daughter Flohaug - who had recently finished college and planned to move back into Jeffrey's house on August 20 - as her helper during the variance period. Jeffrey and Flohaug discussed the matter before Flohaug returned home, and Flohaug told her mother she would be "around to help" with the day care. Jeffrey wrote on the variance request: "I will have good, reliable help. My daughter is a [physical education] and health teacher who loves kids." On August 14, in the course of a relicensing inspection of her home, Jeffrey informed a county social worker that "her adult daughter, Ginger Jeffrey, would be moving home the next week and would be available to help" with the children. The county granted the variance request on August 17.

On August 21, the first effective day of the variance, the conditions in the Jeffrey day care violated the variance in at least three ways: the ratio of children to adults exceeded the ratio permitted by the variance; the ages of the children present violated the age-distribution restrictions established by the variance: instead of one infant and two toddlers, as permitted by the variance, there were in fact two infants and four toddlers present; and the total number of children present - 13 - exceeded the total number of children Jeffrey had indicated in the variance request. Flohaug was present in the home until the late morning, when she left for a job interview; she was absent for between two and three hours.

At about noon, after Flohaug had already left, Laska dropped Hannah off at Jeffrey's home. At approximately 1:30, Jeffrey took Hannah to the spare room at the rear of the house for a nap. Jeffrey laid Hannah on her stomach on an adult bed on top of a foam-filled comforter. At approximately 2:00, Flohaug returned home and provided general caregiving assistance to her mother. At some point in the afternoon, she helped care for a toddler who fell in the kitchen and cut her head. Between 2:00 and 2:30, Jeffrey went into the spare bedroom where ...


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