An Iowa Supreme Court decision from early June could make it more difficult for ordinary citizens to sue over poorly-kept roads and highways.
The court, writes David Pitt of the Associated Press, is playing to a controversial but popular take on public-duty doctrine. From a legal standpoint, some government agencies can be excepted from liability if their inability to perform a service adversely affects an individual plaintiff rather than their wider constituency.
The ruling stems from the case of 28-year old Kaitlyn Johnson, who suffered severe injuries in a 2013 car crash.
Johnson was riding in a pick-up truck when the driver—her husband—momentarily dozed off. The vehicle skirted the side of the road, entering a ditch and striking a concrete barrier installed by a local farmer. Her injuries, reports Pitt, included ‘paralysis, a brain injury and multiple broken bones.’
After her hospitalization, Johnson sued the farmer, who’d installed the barrier to prevent his cows from escape. She also launched a lawsuit against the county, alleging its failure to remove the concrete block put the public at risk.
Johnson’s lawsuit was quickly dismissed by a local judge, who said public duty doctrine absolved the county of liability.
Public duty doctrine, says Pitt, is considered an ‘outdated legal concept’ by many. Several states—including Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and eight others—have already abandoned or replaced the policy.
Even though Iowa’s attempted to ‘relax government immunity to lawsuits,’ public duty doctrine is oft upheld to defend counties, cities and the state from litigation—a phenomenon attorneys claim is contrary to the legislation’s intent.
“The doctrine is an artificial remnant of common law which should be dispensed with just like any other outdated legal theory which no longer makes practical sense or is at odds with a statute,” said Joel Fenton, an attorney with the Iowa Association for Justice.
Fenton, writes the AP, argued in a court filing that public duty doctrine contradicts more contemporary pieces of Iowa state law. And the decision to dismiss Johnson’s case, he claims, flew in the face of well over a century’s worth of precedent.
Johnson’s attorney, Conrad Meis, says “the public duty doctrine cannot be justified as sound policy serving any useful purpose. That this doctrine is no longer fair and sensible public policy is underscored by the fact that the doctrine is at odds with this state’s law requiring that municipalities be held accountable for their negligence in the same manner as individuals […]”
The Supreme Court’s justices defending their ruling, saying the limited resources with which cities and counties operate limits their ability to address every possible flaw infrastructure or practice.
“We believe the limited resources of governmental entities—combined with the many demands on those entities—provide a sound justification for public-duty doctrine,” wrote Justice Edward Mansfield in the majority opinion.
Nevertheless, Meis said citizens have certain expectations for the government, including the provision of basic services.
“If the government can’t provide a safe highway, it’s a dangerous place out there,” he said.