Court reduces government liability for road safety

Public-duty doctrine thought to be outdated legal concept

By David Pitt
Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — A recent Iowa Supreme Court decision involving a 2013 car accident on a northwest Iowa county road could make it more difficult for citizens to hold city, county and state officials responsible when people are hurt as the result of unsafe road conditions.

The court in deciding to keep the long established but controversial public-duty doctrine determined that a northern Iowa woman cannot sue a county for failing to remove a concrete wall a farmer had installed in a roadside ditch to help keep cows from escaping.

Kaitlyn Johnson, 28, was injured in March 2013 when the pickup truck she was riding in left the road southwest of Humboldt and struck the concrete structure after the driver, her husband at the time, reportedly fell asleep. Her injuries included paralysis, a brain injury and multiple broken bones. She sued the farmer for installing the concrete barrier in the ditch and the county for failure to remove it and maintain a safe road right-of-way required under Iowa law.

A judge dismissed her lawsuit against the county saying the public-duty doctrine in Iowa insulates the county from legal responsibility under the circumstances of the accident.

Many consider the public duty doctrine an outdated legal concept that says a state, county or city cannot be held liable for breaching a duty or obligation owed to the public at large. In some states more recent laws have clearly established government liability when it comes to public harm. The doctrine has been abandoned or limited in states including Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wyoming.

A few states have joined Iowa in affirming the doctrine in recent years including Connecticut, Tennessee and Utah.

A majority of four Iowa justices in a ruling published June 8 upheld the judge’s ruling in Johnson’s case declaring that the public duty doctrine remains the law in Iowa. Three justices disagreed and the dissenting opinion written by Justice David Wiggins said the public-duty doctrine “is at odds with the legislature’s clear intent in limiting the scope of sovereign immunity,” and it is confusing and results in unpredictable outcomes in cases.

Long-standing immunity that held government officials and employees largely free from lawsuits began to fade about 70 years ago after Congress passed the Federal Tort Claim Act, ushering in a new era of government accountability.

Many states, including Iowa passed their own laws, including the Iowa Tort Claims Act and the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act, that began to relax government immunity to lawsuits. But in many cases the Iowa courts have continued to protect counties, cities and the state from legal responsibility, a trend some attorneys find conflicts with the legislature’s intent.

“The doctrine is an artificial remnant of common law which should be dispensed with just like any other outdated legal theory which no longer makes practical sense or is at odds with a statute,” said Joel Fenton, an attorney for the Iowa Association of Justice, a group that provides legal services to injured Iowans in the courts.

Fenton said in a brief filed with the court that the public duty doctrine conflicts with laws the legislature has passed to hold officials and government entities responsible when they cause injuries. He said the decision to dismiss Johnson’s case based on the public-duty doctrine conflicts with 150 years of precedent in cases that held government entities responsible for road hazards that injured individuals.

Johnson’s attorney Conrad Meis argued “the public duty doctrine cannot be justified as sound policy serving any useful purpose. That this doctrine is no longer fair and sensible public policy is underscored by the fact that the doctrine is at odds with this state’s laws requiring that municipalities be held accountable for their negligence in the same manner as individuals...”

An attorney representing cities and counties said the public-duty doctrine is in place to prevent second-guessing of important work done by the government and under constraints that nongovernment individuals would not have.

“All government decisions come with a balancing test of how to spend limited resources to best provide for its citizens,” said Thomas M. Boes, who filed documents with the court on behalf of several organizations representing Iowa cities and counties. “The public-duty doctrine serves all Iowans by allowing municipalities to do their job. It must not be abandoned.”

Not only did the justices uphold the public duty doctrine immunity to Humboldt County in Johnson’s case, but they extended such protections for the first time to a county that had failed to maintain the safety of a public road.

Justice Edward Mansfield, writing the majority decision, said previous court decisions have long upheld the public duty doctrine and the justices were not prepared to overturn that precedent.

“We believe the limited resources of governmental entities — combined with the many demands on those entities — provide a sound justification for the public-duty doctrine,” Mansfield wrote. “Cities, counties, and the state have to balance numerous competing public priorities, all of which may be important to the general health, safety, and welfare. This does not mean the same no-duty rule would protect that entity when it affirmatively acts and does so negligently.”

Meis said citizens expect government to be held responsible for providing certain basic services and highway safety is one of them.

“If the government can’t provide a safe highway, it’s a dangerous place out there,” he said.

Johnson’s lawsuit against the farmer who built the concrete wall had been put on hold until the court ruled on her appeal against the county. She’ll now proceed with her case against the farmer.

The concrete barrier was removed after Johnson’s lawsuit was filed, Meis said.