No wrong without a remedy. No remedy without a wrong.
In the early hours of 3 March 2013 Kaitlyn Johnson was a passenger in a pickup truck driven by her then husband. At about 2:30am he fell asleep. The vehicle left the road, travelled some distance in a roadside ditch and hit a concrete embankment that had been build by a farmer in 1972. Johnson suffered serious injuries.
Johnson issued proceedings against Humboldt County in the Iowa District Court for that County. She alleged that the county had negligently failed to cause the embankment to be removed. The defendant raised a defence under the public-duty doctrine. The trial court dismissed her claim: Johnson v Humboldt County (Iowa Dist. Ct, Stoebe J, 23 September 2016). Johnson appealed.
The Iowa Supreme Court noted that under the public duty doctrine, when a duty is owed to the public generally, no duty exists to an individual member of that group. A breach of such a duty is not actionable unless the plaintiff can show a special relationship between the relevant government agency the the plaintiff. The court concluded that the public-duty doctrine controlled the case:
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.
Johnson raised a number of reasons why the public-duty doctrine should not apply. One of the arguments was particularly interesting. She argued that the public-duty doctrine could not be raised when a claim was brought under the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act §670.2. The section provides that “every municipality is subject to liability for its torts and those of its officers and employees, acting within the scope of their
employment or duties”. The court rejected the argument:
Johnson erroneously equates immunity (as waived by the Iowa Municipal Claims Act) with the common law public-duty doctrine. … We have said, “Unlike immunity, which protects a municipality from liability for breach of an otherwise enforceable duty to the plaintiff, the public duty rule asks whether there was any enforceable duty to the plaintiff in the first place.”
The District Court’s decision was affirmed.
Johnson v Humboldt County (Supreme Court of Iowa, 8 June 2018)