Public Duty Doctrine Gives Immunity to City When Suspect Stole Police Car

In Holt v. City of Fayetteville, No. M2014-02573-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Mar. 15, 2016), the Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal of plaintiffs’ claims due to the city’s immunity under the public duty doctrine, a key limitation of the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act.

According to plaintiffs, a police officer had arrested a suspect and placed her in a police car, yet failed to property restrain her. The suspect then stole the police car, drove “at a high rate of speed,” and collided with the car carrying plaintiffs, causing one person to die and three minors to be seriously injured. Plaintiffs brought suit against the city based on the negligence of the police officer in failing to properly restrain the suspect as she was taken into custody.

The city moved for dismissal, which the trial court granted, finding that “although the GTLA removed immunity for negligent acts of employees, Plaintiffs’ claims against the City were barred by the public duty doctrine.” The Court of Appeals affirmed this holding.

On appeal, the Court first looked to the GTLA. As a municipality, the city was entitled to immunity under the GTLA unless the situation fit into one of the enumerated exceptions in the statute. Plaintiffs argued that immunity was removed under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-202, which “removes sovereign immunity ‘for injuries resulting from the negligent operation by any employee of a motor vehicle…while in the scope of employment.’” The Court rejected this argument, noting that plaintiffs in this case “only allege that Police Officer negligently restrained [suspect] after her arrest.” The Court concluded that they were “unable to create a claim of negligent operation of a motor vehicle solely from an allegation that Police Officer negligently restrained [suspect].”

Finding that the operation of a motor vehicle exception did not apply, however, was not the end of the GTLA analysis. Plaintiffs also argued that immunity was removed pursuant to § 29-20-205, which waives immunity for injuries caused by “a negligent act or omission of any employee within the scope of his employment.” Because the city did not argue that any of the exceptions to this category applied, the Court determined that the claim could potentially move forward under the GTLA on this basis.

After finding a fitting GTLA exception, the Court moved on to analyze the application of the public duty doctrine. The pubic duty doctrine is a “valid defense to a tort action against a municipality[,]” and it “shields a public employee from suits for injuries that are caused by the public employee’s breach of a duty owed to the public at large.” When analyzing a case that involves both the GTLA and the public duty doctrine, the Court looked to the Tennessee Supreme Court for a three-step analysis: (1) determine whether there is immunity under the GTLA; (2) if the GTLA does not provide immunity, “look to the general rule of immunity under the public duty doctrine;” and (3) “[i]f immunity is then found under the public duty doctrine, the next inquiry is whether the special duty exception removes the immunity afforded under the public duty doctrine.” (quoting Chase v. City of Memphis, 971 S.W.2d 380 (Tenn. 1998)). Having already completely the GTLA analysis, the Court moved on to look at the public duty doctrine, step two in this three-step process.

Here, the Court quickly determined that the public duty doctrine applied, stating that “[t]he decision to arrest a suspect and properly secure him or her is a duty owed to the public at large.” Next, then, the Court looked at whether one of the special duty exceptions applied to allow plaintiffs to move forward, citing three special duty exceptions to the public duty doctrine: (1) where the official has “affirmatively undertake[n] to protect the plaintiff and the plaintiff relies upon the undertaking;” (2) where a statute specifically gives the plaintiff a cause of action; and (3) where “the plaintiff alleges a cause of action involving intent, malice, or reckless misconduct.”

Plaintiffs argued that the first exception, an affirmative undertaking, applied here, asserting that “by placing [suspect] in custody, police officer ‘narrowed down the scope of his duty of reasonable care from the public at large down to the class of civilians who were then utilizing the roadways’ in the City.” The Court rejected this argument, finding that in order for the special duty exception to apply, “the duty must be particular to the Plaintiffs, not to a class of individuals to which Plaintiffs happen to be members.” Further, the Court noted, the Plaintiffs would not be able to show any reliance on the police officer’s actions.

For the second exception, plaintiffs attempted to argue under two statutes—one that creates a special duty when a police officer is in pursuit of a suspect and one that requires people using vehicles to “stop the engine, lock[] the ignition, and effectively set[] the brake” of the car. The Court found both of these statutes inapplicable, noting that the police officer in question here was not pursuing the suspect and that plaintiff had not cited or plead either of the mentioned statutes in their complaint.

For the third exception, the Court noted that plaintiffs did not allege any intent, malice or recklessness on the part of the police officer, and that the exception thus did not apply.

Because the public duty doctrine applied and no special duty exception was applicable, the Court affirmed dismissal due to the city’s immunity from suit.

This case serves as a reminder of the sometimes harsh results when suing a government entity. Here, something clearly went wrong—an apprehended suspect was able to obtain control of a police car. Moreover, the consequences were catastrophic, as one man died and three minors were severely injured. Nonetheless, plaintiffs were left with empty hands and a dismissed case. When evaluating the merit of and drafting the complaint for a suit against a governmental entity, a lawyer must use great care and anticipate potential challenges and defenses that will arise. These cases often present difficult legal hurdles that must be thought through in advance if plaintiffs are going to have a shot at success.