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Historic Public Health and Communicable Disease Cases

Is a smallpox quarantine false imprisonment? - Crayton v. Larabee, 110 N. Rep. 355, 220 N.Y. 493 (N.Y. Ct. of App. 1917)

In July of 1911 the board of health in Syracuse New York discovered that a woman living in a house close to Ms. Crayton had smallpox. Pursuant to its powers, the board of health quarantined the house of the infected woman as well as the house of Ms. Crayton on the basis that Ms. Crayton had been exposed to smallpox. The quarantine lasted from July 14 to July 29, 1911. Ms. Crayton brought suit against the officers of the board of health for wrongful imprisonment and other damages for advertising to the town that she had or had been exposed to "a loathsome disease, was unfit to be at large or pursue her occupation, and thereby deprived her of her earnings, injured her feelings, held her up to ridicule, and caused her to be shunned by her fellow citizens." Her second cause of action was based on the same facts and that the board of health and its agents did "the acts without probable or reasonable cause" and that she had "never had said disease and never had been exposed to said disease." 

The lower court held that "the quarantine was wrongful unless the plaintiff had been, in fact, exposed to the disease, and that the existence of a reasonable ground or cause for the judgement of the health officer, if it existed, that the public health required the quarantine did not relieve him and the defendants fulfilling his orders from liability to the plaintiff." The lower court found for Ms. Crayton and awarded her damages. The agents of the board of health appealed claiming that the statute authorized them to take such actions that, in their reasonable discretion, they found reasonably necessary to protect the public health of the city and that the trial court erroneously instructed the jury as to the law and meaning of the statute. 

The New York Court of Appeals, after interpreting the applicable statute determined that the statute did authorize the members of the board of health to take such action. They found "(t)he general authority to the health officer to absolutely quarantine in cases of the designated diseases wherever he deemed necessary was not intended to and does not confer upon him unlimited power and right to control persons and property" but that "conditions must exist which render, within reason and fair apprehension, his action essential for the preservation of the health of the public." The appellate court also found that a "mere error in judgement" cannot make the health officers liable to private individuals unless the actions are found to be "(u)nreasonable and arbitrary action in excess of his authority, causing injuries, supports his liability." The appellate court found that the statute required specific conditions to be present in order for the board of health to act in its capacity to maintain public health and safety:

"The police power defines precise definition and rigid delimitation. We hold here that the ordinance was authorized, was legally adopted, was a reasonable and valid health regulation under the police power of the state, vesting in the health officer a stated discretionary power, which, if lawfully exercised, protected those exercising it against the consequent damages to person or property." 

The appellate court reversed the lower court's ruling and remanded the case for a new trial to determine upon the facts if the health officers had lawfully exercised their discretion in quarantining Ms. Crayton.

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