Iowa Supreme Court Affirms The Public Immunity Doctrine For Government Defendants

On June 8, 2018 the Iowa Supreme Court decided Kaitlyn Johnson v. Humboldt County. That decision considered the continuing viability of the public duty doctrine under Iowa law. Under the public-duty doctrine, if a the state or local government owes a duty to the public generally, there is no liability to an individual member of that group for breach of that duty. A breach of duty owed to the public at large is not actionable unless the plaintiff can establish, based on the unique or particular facts of the case, a special relationship between the governmental and the injured plaintiff.

The case involved a single-vehicle accident that occurred when a vehicle went off a Humboldt County road and into a ditch, then struck a concrete embankment in the ditch. The embankment had been constructed by a private landowner. It was on the private landowner’s land, although the county had a right-of-way easement where part of the embankment was located.

A passenger in the vehicle sustained serious injuries. She sued Humboldt county. She alleged that the county should have caused the removal of the concrete embankment from the ditch. The trial court dismissed the claims against the county based on the public-duty doctrine. The injured driver appealed.

The Iowa Supreme Court identified several reasons for its continued adherence to the public duty doctrine. One is the limited resources of governmental entities and the many demands on those entities. 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. 

The court also observed that this was a case that confirmed the reasons why the government shouldn't face liability in such situations because, in essence, the county did nothing wrong. There was undisputed evidence that there had been no complaints, concerns, or requests for action during the forty years the concrete embankment had been in place. The embankment was in neither the traveled portion of the right-of-way nor the shoulder. The driver of the vehicle fell asleep at the wheel, drove across the other side of the highway, kept going off the highway into a ditch, and then traveled without applying the brakes for over 200 feet before striking the embankment. The court did note that the case may have been different had the county affirmatively acted in some manner (such as by erecting the concrete embankment in the ditch) and did so negligently. 

The court determined that the public duty doctrine barred the injured passenger's negligence claim against Humboldt County. Any duty to remove obstructions from the right-of-way corridor adjacent to the highway would be a duty owed to all users of this public road. It would thus be a public duty for which no claim of negligence could be made. There was no special relationship between the injured passenger and Humboldt County. She was simply a passenger in a vehicle using a county road, same as any other member of the general public. For that reason, Humboldt County owed her no duties and she could not sue it.

Harley Erbe