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City is liable for cyclist injured on bike trail, Iowa Supreme Court rules

by Rox Laird | June 17, 2020

A Burlington woman injured in a biking accident on a park trail can proceed with her lawsuit against the city in Des Moines County District Court, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in a decision handed down June 12.

In its decision in Breese v. City of Burlington, the Court reviewed the history of the common law public-duty doctrine in Iowa that says that where there is a duty owed to the public in general there is no liability to an individual member of the public.

In recent years, the Court has revisited the continuing viability of the doctrine, most recently in a 2018 Humboldt County case in which three justices argued in dissent that it should be reconsidered. [Go to On Brief’s Updates & Analysis page to read our analysis of Johnson v. Humboldt County.]

Two of the three dissenting justices in that case have since been replaced, and the Court’s June 12 opinion did not cast doubt on the doctrine’s validity. The Court, however, ruled that it does not apply in the Burlington case.

Kathryn Marie Breese sued the city of Burlington for injuries after she fell off of a concrete sewer box connected to a bike trail in a city park. Breese argued that the city was negligent in connecting the bike trail to the sewer box, which rose about 10 feet above the ground at the point where she fell off after striking a low-hanging tree branch. There were no guardrails or warning signs that the sewer box was not part of the trail.

The District Court dismissed the suit on summary judgment based on the public-duty doctrine.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for trial.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice Susan Christensen joined by Justices Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman, Christopher McDonald, Matthew McDermott, and Dana Oxley, the Court held that the city is not shielded by the public-duty doctrine, and that there is an issue for a jury to decide on whether the bike path connected to a sewer box met state-of-the art standards. Justice Brent Appel wrote a one-paragraph special concurrence agreeing with the majority’s result but questioning the validity of the public-duty doctrine.

The majority opinion said the city was, by its negligent actions, not protected by the public-duty doctrine because it built the sewer box, paved the trail, and connected the two.

“Here, a jury could find the city was affirmatively negligent in connecting the public pathway to the sewer box to give the sewer box the appearance that it was part of the public trail system,” Christensen wrote. “A jury could find that when the city connected the trail and the sewer box, it needed to take measures either to make the sewer box a safe part of the trail by adding guardrails or to warn pedestrians that the sewer box was not part of the public trail system.”

The city was also unable to claim immunity by arguing that the sewer box met accepted standards when it was built around 1930, the Court said, because the city “fundamentally altered the sewer box” by connecting it to the park trail sometime after 1980.

In the course of discussing the state-of-the-art defense, the Court departed from its previous decisions that placed the burden on plaintiffs claiming negligent design or construction to establish that the municipality failed to follow generally recognized engineering or safety standards at the time.

Nothing in those previous cases explained why the burden should be on plaintiffs, except for a footnote in the original case, and the Court said, “We disavow any language in our past cases” saying that.

“Given the function of the state-of-the-art defense, placing the burden on the party challenging the defense is illogical because the defendant will normally have access to information regarding when the improvement was made. The plaintiff will not,” Christensen wrote. “Thus, it makes sense to require the defendant to come forward with proof that the improvement conformed to the state of the art rather than to require the plaintiff to require proof that it did not.”

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