The Public Duty Doctrine: Just In Case You Aren't Confused Yet

Reading through the history of sovereign immunity, the Tort Claims Act, and the Public Duty Doctrine?  Better bring your screaming pillow.

Reading through the history of sovereign immunity, the Tort Claims Act, and the Public Duty Doctrine?  Better bring your screaming pillow.

Public Duty Doctrine?  Sounds familiar...

We talked about the Public Duty Doctrine on Tuesday, remember?  If you'll recall, our discussion began with sovereign (and government) immunity, which basically serves to absolve the state of civil liability for the negligent misdeeds of its employees.  In response to the obvious concerns over the ramifications of this doctrine, North Carolina passed the Tort Claims Act in 1951.  The Tort Claims Act serves as a partial legislative waiver, of sorts, of the state's sovereign immunity protection, allowing residents to bring negligence claims against the state through the North Carolina Industrial Commission.

So to recap, what we're looking at is essentially a long back-and-forth between state liability and non-liability.  At first blush, the state is liable for negligence just like anybody else, right? Then you introduce sovereign immunity, and that liability is stripped away.  Then you put the Tort Claims Act in play, and liability is restored.  

So that's the end of the analysis, right?  Tort Claims Act beats sovereign immunity just like paper beats rock, right?  Well, not quite.  Whenever you implicate the Tort Claims Act, there's always one more legal doctrine that you can count on raising its ugly, unfair, inconsistently-applied head.  I speak, of course, of the dreaded Public Duty Doctrine.

Okay, so what is the Public Duty Doctrine?

The Public Duty Doctrine is a fairly recent development in our state, being first recognized by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 1991.  Think of it this way; what we work with today is a combination of sovereign immunity, Tort Claims Act, and Public Duty Doctrine.  Think of the Tort Claims Act as controlling, with the Public Duty Doctrine operating as a "carve-out" for sovereign immunity to trump the Tort Claims Act in a few specific situations.  

So that's all well and good on a hypothetical level, but what does the Public Duty Doctrine look like in real life?  Well, it's important to know that from the beginning, the Doctrine only applied to acts and omissions by law enforcement.  A 2011 opinion out of the Court of Appeals described it admirably succinctly, as follows:  "When a governmental entity owes a duty to the general public, individual plaintiffs may not enforce the duty in tort.”  The first case recognizing the Doctrine in 1991 stated:

The general common law rule, known as the public duty doctrine, is that a municipality and its agents act for the benefit of the public, and therefore, there is no liability for the failure to furnish ... protection to specific individuals. This rule recognizes the limited resources of law enforcement and refuses to judicially impose an overwhelming burden of liability for failure to prevent every criminal act.
— Braswell v. Braswell, 410 S.E.2d 897, 901 (N.C. 1991)

Braswell was an interesting case, in which a troubled sheriff's deputy made direct threats to kill his wife and them himself.  These threats were well-documented, and even the county sheriff was aware of the situation.  The sheriff assured the wife one morning that he would make sure that she was protected; by that evening, the deputy had killed her.  The couple's son brought a lawsuit against the sheriff, charging that he was negligent in failing to fulfill his promise of protection to the mother.  

As you can see from the above quote, the court found that the Public Duty Doctrine operated to shield the sheriff, and thereby the state, from liability for failing to protect the deputy's wife.  You'll also notice from the quote that the court's justification was based upon the "limited resources" available to the sheriff's department, which may be confusing considering that the sheriff's failure to follow through on his promise had absolutely nothing to do with the amount of resources available to him.  

Muddying the waters even further, the Braswell court provided two exceptions to the Doctrine, presumably intended to counteract the forbidding effect of the rule it had just enacted.  These exceptions are that the Doctrine will not apply (again, the rule at the time was that the Doctrine always and only applied to local law enforcement) when (i) there is a special relationship between the injured party and the defendant, and (ii) when the defendant "creates a special duty by promising protection to an individual, the protection is not forthcoming, and the individual's reliance on the promise of protection is causally related to the injury suffered."  Like I said, clear as mud.  Seems like a very narrow duty, right?  It only applies to law enforcement, and there are only two very specific ways around it; this would seem to inure to the benefit of North Carolina plaintiffs.

And the landscape after Braswell?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you're asking), North Carolina courts wasted very little time stretching the Public Duty Doctrine as far as they possibly could.  The next two cases to come down the pipe, Hunt and Stone, were both against the NC Department of Labor, and they were both decided in favor of the Department.  

In Stone, a food products plant failed to maintain sufficient fire escapes, the Department failed to discover or address the issues through inspections, and several people died when a fire broke out.  Citing the same "limited resources" argument and quivering over the prospect of congested dockets, the court held that the Doctrine now applied not only to law enforcement, but also to all other state agencies.  Major loss for North Carolina plaintiffs.

In Hunt, a Department of Labor inspector goofed on the inspection of an amusement park ride, resulting in severe injuries to a boy who later rode on it.  In a decision that was somewhat surprising at the time, though maybe it shouldn't have been, the court again held that the Public Duty Doctrine protected the inspector, the Department of Labor, and the state generally.  So the rule after Stone and Hunt was now that the Doctrine applied to all state agencies as well as local law enforcement, and that it applied to inspections that were performed improperly or not performed at all.  The question then became whether the Doctrine applied to more than that.

Enter Lovelace v. City of Shelby, a case decided by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2000.  Without getting bogged down in the factual details of the case, suffice it to say that the court resolved itself to placing a hard boundary on the Public Duty Doctrine.  This was accomplished in two respects: (i) by limiting its applicability to state agencies that have a statutory duty to conduct inspections for the purpose of protecting the public, and (ii) by limiting the local law enforcement application to police, meaning that fire departments and EMS workers aren't eligible for PDD protection.

Simple enough.  So that's the rule now, right?

Nope!  It couldn't possibly be that simple.  After Lovelace, there were three cases that made the analysis even more unclear and the rule more difficult to elucidate.  After hemming and hawing for over a year, the Court of Appeals finally came up with a hard-and-fast rule; that the Public Duty Doctrine "only applies where plaintiffs allege negligence through (a) failure of law enforcement to provide protection from the misconduct of others, and (b) failure of a state's departments or agencies to detect and prevent misconduct of others through improper inspections."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is as close as we've gotten to a singular rule by which we can predict the outcome of a Public Duty Doctrine case.  It's still flawed, and it still leaves a ton of holes unplugged, but it's what we have to work with for the moment.

To review, the Public Duty Doctrine is a carve-out for sovereign immunity to apply where the Tort Claims Act would normally expose the state to liability for negligence.  The Doctrine will come into play, blocking liability, where (i) a local law enforcement agency fails to provide protection from the misconduct of others, and (ii) where a state department or agency having a duty to perform inspections for the benefit of the general public fails to do so, causing harm to a plaintiff.