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The Public Duty Doctrine from the Plaintiff’s Perspective: Misfeasance (Good) v. Nonfeasance (Bad)

The “public duty doctrine” generally prevents individuals who receive public services, like police protection, from suing the government for failing to provide those services. The public duty doctrine holds that the government owes duties to the public at large, not to individual citizens. Consequently, the government cannot be held liable for its alleged failure to provide public services to any particular individual. When only a general duty to protect the public exists, the government does not owe a duty of care to an individual citizen the breach of which may result in liability. In short, a duty to all is a duty to no one.

The Georgia Supreme Court recently clarified the “public duty doctrine” in Stevenson v. City of Doraville. 2013 WL 6188123, at *1 (Ga. Nov. 25, 2013). In Stevenson, the plaintiff was injured after his car stalled in the middle of the highway. A police cruiser approached the plaintiff’s vehicle, parked behind it, and activated its blue lights to warn oncoming traffic. The police officer, however, did not exit his vehicle or approach the plaintiff – he called for assistance.   Unsure of the officer’s intent, the plaintiff exited his vehicle and was injured by an oncoming car.   Plaintiff sued the City that employed the police officer, alleging that he was negligent in failing to assist him beyond simply parking his cruiser and activating his lights. The trial court awarded summary judgment to the City and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

The Supreme Court also affirmed, but its opinion distinguished between claims alleging a mere failure to act (nonfeasance) and claims alleging active negligence (misfeasance). The public duty doctrine, it held, bars claims based on a government agent’s failure to perform a public duty (nonfeasance). It does not, however, bar claims based on allegations of active negligence (misfeasance). Since Stevenson alleged affirmative acts of negligence (misfeasance), the Court held, the City was not shielded from liability. Nevertheless, the City was still entitled to summary judgment because Stevenson could not prove his allegations of active negligence.

Despite the plaintiff’s inability to overcome summary judgment in this case, the Court’s decision is still a good one for injury victims.   Given the opportunity, the Court refused to extend the public duty doctrine to claims of active negligence (misfeasance), stating that “a majority of this Court has declined to extend the doctrine to include affirmative acts of negligence and, under our established precedent, the public duty doctrine’s limitation on liability is restricted to cases involving police nonfeasance.” Thus, in cases where plaintiff can allege actual acts of negligence, they may yet prevail.

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