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Public Duty Doctrine Applied To Eliminate Claim

Where a sheriff’s deputy owed a duty to the public at large, but not to plaintiff specifically, to protect cars from running into a downed tree on a state highway, the Public Duty Doctrine barred plaintiff’s GTLA suit and dismissal of plaintiff’s case was affirmed.

In Kimble v. Dyer County Tennessee, No. W2019-02042-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 16, 2020), plaintiff filed suit under the Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA) after he was injured in a car accident. According to plaintiff, there was a bad storm the night of the accident and a tree had fallen across the state highway plaintiff was traveling on. Plaintiff’s vehicle ran into the downed tree, causing him injury. The crux of plaintiff’s complaint was that the sheriff’s office had been notified of the downed tree, and that a sheriff’s deputy negligently and/or recklessly left the scene of the downed tree to attend to another emergency “without leaving any sign or signal of a hazardous situation.” Plaintiff’s accident occurred after the deputy had been to and left the downed tree area.

Plaintiff named the county, the sheriff, and the deputy as defendants, and defendants moved to dismiss based on several theories under the GTLA. The trial court granted the motion to dismiss, relying in part on the Public Duty Doctrine, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

Pursuant to the GTLA, “an act or omission is considered operational and immunity is removed either when: (1) the conduct occurs in the absence of a formulated policy guiding the conduct or omission; or (2) when the conduct deviates from an established plan or policy.” (internal citation omitted). Making all reasonable inferences in plaintiff’s favor here, the Court of Appeals found that the deputy’s actions could be considered operational and that immunity was thus removed under the GTLA, unless a defense applied.

In this case, the common law defense of the Public Duty Doctrine was at play, with the Court explaining:

[T]he Public Duty Doctrine is a common law defense that shields public employees for injuries that are caused by the employee’s breach of a duty owed to the public at large rather than to the individual plaintiff, and it likewise shields local governmental entities from such liability. If the GTLA removes immunity, then the common law rule of immunity under the Public Duty Doctrine provides an additional layer of defense and is the next level of inquiry for the court.

(internal citation omitted). There is, however, an exception to the immunity provided by the Public Duty Doctrine. When there is a special relationship between the public employee and the plaintiff, that relationship “creates a special duty that is more specific to the plaintiff than the duty owed by the employee to the public at large.” (internal citation omitted). This special relationship exception can arise in three circumstances: 1) when the official “affirmatively undertake[s] to protect the plaintiff, and the plaintiff relies upon the undertaking,” 2) when a statute applies and provides for a cause of action, or 3) when “the plaintiff alleges a cause of action involving intent, malice, or reckless misconduct.” (internal citation omitted). Plaintiff alleged that both the first and third special relationship exceptions to the Public Duty Doctrine applied.

The Court of Appeals first analyzed whether a special relationship was created by the deputy’s actions. The Court looked at several cases examining this exception and noted that “[c]ases applying the Public Duty Doctrine make clear that whether a special duty arose under Tennessee law does not simply turn on whether the defendant might have reason to know that someone was in danger under the circumstances.” (internal citation omitted). Instead, a much more specific undertaking was required, as “a duty owed to everyone is a duty owed to no one.” (internal citation omitted). Looking to the facts presented in this case, the Court found:

[Plaintiff’s] complaint does not set out facts from which one could infer that [the deputy] affirmatively undertook to protect [plaintiff]. If [the deputy] owed a duty of care, that duty was to the public at large. Although [plaintiff] would be included as a member of the public, such duty would not be specific to him, but would extend, as the complaint states, to ‘other travelers’ or ‘on-coming travelers.’ Furthermore, there is no indication that [plaintiff] relied on anything [the deputy] did or said. As noted above, there was never any contact between [plaintiff] and [the deputy].

Based on these findings, the Court ruled that plaintiff had not met the requirements of the first exception to the Public Duty Doctrine.

The Court next analyzed whether this case fell within the third special duty exception based on the deputy’s alleged reckless conduct. Plaintiff averred that the deputy’s decision to leave the downed tree unguarded was reckless, but the Court noted that it was not required to accept this allegation from the complaint as true since it was a legal conclusion. Instead, “the facts set out in the complaint must show a level of culpability beyond mere negligence.” Here, the Court determined that the assertion that the deputy left the downed tree during a storm to attend to another emergency did “not rise to the level of gross reckless deviation from the reasonable standard of care” needed to meet the special duty exception. Because no exception applied, the Public Duty Doctrine was a defense in this case and dismissal based on that defense was affirmed.

This opinion contains an explanation of the Public Duty Doctrine within the GTLA, as well as the exceptions thereto. Anyone litigating a case where the Public Duty Doctrine might be an issue would be wise to read this opinion and be aware of the multiple other cases it cites.  The doctrine appears to be expanding beyond its original boundaries.

NOTE:  The opinion in this case was released one month after the oral argument.

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