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Public Duty Doctrine did not apply in dangerous sidewalk case.

Where plaintiff filed a GTLA suit based on the city school system’s failure to remedy a dangerous condition on a sidewalk at its high school, the public duty doctrine did not apply and immunity was removed under the GTLA.

In Lawson v. Maryville City Schools, No. E2019-02194-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Dec. 14, 2020), the plaintiff was taking her grandson to school when she tripped and fell on a deteriorated section of sidewalk. The sidewalk was located on school property, which was owned and controlled by the defendant.

Plaintiff filed this suit under the GTLA, and defendant filed a motion to dismiss, asserting that it was “immune from suit pursuant to the public duty doctrine.” The trial court agreed, dismissing the case, but the Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by explaining that “both the GTLA and the public duty doctrine are affirmative defenses,” and that when a case potentially involves both, the Court is “to first look to the GTLA.” (internal citations omitted). If the Court determines that the GTLA “does not provide immunity, [it] may look to the general rule of immunity under the public duty doctrine.” (internal citation omitted).

Regarding the GTLA, the Court noted that this case fell under Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-203, as this code section applies when “(1) the governmental entity owns or controls the location or instrumentality alleged to have caused the injury; (2) the location or instrumentality is defective, unsafe, or dangerous; and (3) the governmental entity has constructive or actual notice of the condition.” (internal citation omitted). Plaintiff alleged in her complaint that she was injured by a defective sidewalk located on property owned and controlled by defendant school district, and that the school district “knew or should have known of the condition on its premises.” Accordingly, the plaintiff pled the facts needed to fall within this provision of the GTLA, and immunity was removed.

Defendant argued, however, that the public duty doctrine operated to provide immunity in this situation. The public duty doctrine “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.” (internal citation omitted).  The trial court had agreed with the defendant, finding that “the duty to maintain a public sidewalk is a duty owed to the public at large, to the general public,” and that the public duty doctrine thus provided immunity here. The Court of Appeals overturned this ruling, holding that such an application of the public duty doctrine would directly conflict with portions of the GTLA.

The Court reasoned:

Although the public duty doctrine survived the enactment of the GTLA, § 29-20-203 expressly waives immunity for, inter alia, “any injury caused by a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition of any…sidewalk…, owned and controlled by such governmental entity,” the condition of which the governmental entity had constructive or actual notice. Thus, but for the enactment of § 29-20-203, a municipality such as Maryville School System would be exempt pursuant to the public duty doctrine for such a claim. Accordingly, with the enactment of § 29-20-203, the General Assembly expressed its clear intent to limit the scope of the public duty doctrine by removing immunity for certain claims, including, specifically, the claim at issue here. If we were to allow the public duty doctrine to trump § 29-20-203, as Defendant argues, this would nullify the clear intent of the General Assembly and render its enactment useless and an absurdity.

Here, we presume the General Assembly knew that the public duty doctrine provided immunity for the breach of a duty owed to the public at large when it passed Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-203. Yet, all claims arising under § 29-20-203 necessarily stem from a breach of a duty owed to the public at large rather than a duty owed to a particular individual. To conclude that the public duty doctrine overrides the express intent of the General Assembly to remove immunity for ‘any injury caused by a defective, unsafe, or dangerous condition of any…sidewalk…owned and controlled by such governmental entity’ would render Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-20-203 useless and a nullity.

(internal citation omitted).

Accordingly, the Court ruled that the “public duty doctrine does not apply to the claims as stated in the complaint that come under the purview of § 29-20-203” and reversed the dismissal.

This was the correct result in this case, but it is interesting to note that the Court of Appeals released two opinions addressing the public duty doctrine just a few days apart, finding that the doctrine did apply in one case and did not apply in the other. An important distinction is that the dangerous condition here existed on property owned and controlled by the defendant, so this case fell within § 29-20-203 of the GTLA while the other did not.

NOTE:  the opinion in this case was released 5.5 months after the case was submitted on briefs.

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