Summary judgment required based on public duty doctrine in GTLA case.

Where plaintiffs alleged that defendant town negligently provided traffic control at a public festival, but the duty to provide safe traffic control was owed to the public at large, the public duty doctrine shielded the town from liability.

In King v. Town of Selmer, Tennessee, No. W2023-00390-COA-R9-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 8, 2024), plaintiffs filed suit after their two relatives were hit by a car and killed during a public festival in defendant town. The town had helped organize the event in partnership with several other entities. The town developed a traffic-control plan, which included using barrels and sawhorses to block certain streets and create a pedestrian-only zone. During the festival, a 91-year-old man drove through the barricades and hit the plaintiffs’ relatives, killing them.

Plaintiffs filed this GTLA suit against the town, alleging that it was negligent in developing the traffic control plan. Plaintiffs also asserted a joint-venture claim against the town. Defendant town moved for summary judgment based on the public duty doctrine, which the trial court denied, but the Court of Appeals reversed that denial.

The Court of Appeals began its opinion by discussing the proper analysis under the GTLA, stating:

Courts first look to the GTLA. If immunity is found under the GTLA, a court need not inquire as to whether the public duty doctrine also provides immunity. If, however, the GTLA does not provide immunity, courts may look to the general rule of immunity under the public duty doctrine. If 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.

(internal citation omitted). Here, the issue of whether the town retained immunity was not at issue on appeal, so the Court moved directly to consideration of the public duty doctrine.

When considering whether the public duty doctrine applied, the trial court had found that there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the town’s duty was owed to the public at large. The Court of Appeals disagreed with this finding. Plaintiffs argued that the duty to provide traffic control was owed only to “festivalgoers,” which was different from the public at large. The Court noted, however, that the festival was open to the general public and advertised as a public event.  Considering the nature of the event and its openness to the public, the Court concluded that “the festivalgoers and the public at large were one and the same.” Because the duty to provide safe traffic control was owed to the public at large, “the public-duty doctrine applied in this case and would provide the Town with immunity from [plaintiffs’] negligence claims absent a special-duty exception[.]” (internal citation omitted).

“The special-duty exception removes immunity under the public-duty doctrine when…a public official affirmatively undertakes to protect a plaintiff and the plaintiff relies on that undertaking.” (internal citation omitted). While one of the plaintiffs attempted to argue that “by inviting and encouraging each member of the public to attend the Festival, the Town established a special relationship with each one of ‘the festivalgoers[,]’” neither of the plaintiffs included any allegation that applied to their relative individually. Neither plaintiff asserted that their relative was affirmatively or specifically invited to the festival or offered protection individually. The Court found that “the traffic-control plan was developed to protect the festivalgoers, i.e., the public at large, and for general public safety, and was not implemented specifically for [the deceased’s] safety.” Accordingly, the special-duty exception did not remove immunity here, and the trial court erred by not granting summary judgment on plaintiffs’ negligence claims.

Finally, the Court considered plaintiffs’ joint-venture claims against the town. Plaintiffs essentially argued that “the Town formed a joint venture with other Festival defendants,” and that “their joint venture claims are separate contract claims that do not fall under the GTLA, and that, because our Legislature has allowed joint-venture claims against municipalities…, [the] joint-venture claims should be allowed to proceed to trial.” Looking to the complaint, the Court found that the joint-venture allegations were an attempt to “hold the Town liable for the alleged negligence of other Festival defendants.” The Court wrote that plaintiffs had “simply alleged another negligence claim,” and that plaintiffs “cannot hold the Town liable for the alleged negligence of another legal entity.” Noting that “there is simply no language in section 29-20-205 to show that the Legislature intended to remove a governmental entity’s immunity so it could be held liable for a separate legal entity’s negligence,” the Court ruled that the trial court erred by failing to grant defendant summary judgment on the joint venture claims.

The trial court’s denial of summary judgment for defendant was thus reversed.

This opinion contains detailed reasoning on the concept of whether a duty is owed to the public at large and is a good read for anyone litigating a case where the public duty doctrine and special duty exception might arise.

This opinion was released 1.5 months after oral arguments in this case.

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