Iowa Supreme Court reaffirms ‘public duty doctrine’ in rejecting claims against Humboldt County

by Rox Laird | June 13, 2018

An Iowa woman who was severely injured in a vehicle accident in Humboldt County cannot sue the county for negligence based on an exception to such liability suits long recognized in Iowa, a divided Iowa Supreme Court ruled June 8.

Kaitlyn Johnson suffered brain damage and paralysis in the accident when a pickup truck driven by her husband left the county road, when into the ditch and struck a concrete barrier.  The concrete barrier was constructed by a private landowner, and was on the private landowner’s land.   Humboldt County had a right-of-way easement where part of the barrier was located.  Johnson argued the county was negligent in not removing the barrier.

But the Court in Johnson v. Humboldt County said the claim is barred by the “public duty doctrine,” which says where there is a duty owed to the public in general there is no liability to an individual member of the public. The decision written by Edward Mansfield was joined by Chief Justice Mark Cady and Justices Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager. Justice David Wiggins filed a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Brent Appel and Daryl Hecht.

This decision is a replay of the Court’s most recent discussion of the public-duty doctrine in the 2016 ruling in Estate of McFarlin v. State that said the State of Iowa was not liable for a boating death that occurred on the state-owned Storm Lake when a boat struck a submerged dredging pipe. The Court held that lawsuit was barred because the State owed a duty not to the fatally injured boater but to boaters at large who are able to use the lake.

The four justices in the majority in that decision reaffirmed it in the Humboldt County case. The three Humboldt County dissenters dissented in McFarlin as well.

The public-duty doctrine, as explained in a legal treatise cited by the Court, has been adopted by courts to limits government liability.

“The limitless potential liability that might be visited on government entities if affirmative duties were imposed on them for every undertaking has influenced courts in limiting the existence and scope of affirmative duties to which government entities are subject,” according to the Restatement (Third) of Torts. “Some courts insist on a ‘special relationship’ between the plaintiff and a public entity that distinguishes the plaintiff from the public at large before imposing an affirmative duty.”

The Iowa Supreme Court has long recognized the public-duty doctrine, saying it is “alive and well” in Iowa, according to a 2007 decision.

In the dissenting opinion, however, Justice Wiggins said the public-duty doctrine should not apply in this case, in part because the county had an affirmative duty to remove the concrete barrier under a State statute that mandates that government authorities remove all obstructions in highway right-of-ways within their jurisdiction.


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