SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Supreme Court has ruled that the placement of a juvenile in a proctor home does not equate incarceration.

The ruling could mean that a lawsuit claiming negligence on the part of state agencies in the death of a teenage boy could proceed in federal court.

The question came to the state's high court from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Dillon Whitney, 16, who died in November of 2007.

The teenager was charged in late 2006 through early 2007 with several crimes, according to court documents. He was referred to juvenile court and ultimately placed by the state with Quest Youth Services. A Quest employee then put the teen in a proctor home operated by the employee's brother.

On Nov. 24, 2007, Dillon Whitney was on an approved home visit to eat Thanksgiving dinner with his father and also attend a party at a Salt Lake apartment. He got drunk, court records state, and fell down a flight of 17 stairs. The teen was carried back to the apartment, but the apartment tenant, who believed the boy was dead, later dumped him in a stairwell.

Someone found the teenager the following day and called 911. Dillon Whitney died on the way to the hospital.

Dillon's mother, Donna Whitney, sued the state of Utah, the Department of Human Services, the Division of Juvenile Justice Services, private provider Quest Youth Services and several individuals who operate or work for the company, over her son's death.

Attorneys for the state sought to have the lawsuit dismissed in its entirety, arguing in part that the state is immune from a negligence claim because of the "incarceration exception" to the Utah Governmental Immunity Act. But U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball ruled that Donna Whitney's negligence claims could go forward, prompting the state to appeal to the 10th Circuit.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case to the Utah Supreme Court to determine whether the proctor home qualified as a "place of legal confinement." The answer, in a ruling written by Justice Jill Parrish, was a decisive "no."

"We conclude that a juvenile who is placed in an unsecured community-based proctor home is not incarcerated in a place of legal confinement," Parrish wrote. "Accordingly, … the state remains potentially liable for damages related to Dillon Whitney’s death."

Parrish wrote that the Governmental Immunity Act says that the state does not waive its immunity in cases where “the injury arises out of, in connection with, or results from ... the incarceration of any person in any state prison, county or city jail, or other place of legal confinement.”

The state expanded this and said someone is also incarcerated when they are under the control of the state and cannot be released without permission. But Whitney's family argued that incarceration is "physical restraint or spatial confinement."

The high court agreed with the definition presented by Dillon Whitney's family and found that placement in a proctor home in the community does not equate confinement and that the state was, therefore, not immune.

"Dillon Whitney was neither confined spatially nor physically," Parrish wrote. "Rather, the proctor home provided the 'least restrictive' placement available under the Youth Corrections Act. As alleged in the complaint, Dillon was allowed “to come and go at-will from his basement apartment while the proctor resided upstairs."

The ruling does not impact the federal lawsuit, but answered a question sent from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the case remains awaiting a ruling.

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