Iowa Supreme Court Expands Government Liability

Posted on: June 22nd, 2020

On August 30, 2015, Kathryn Breese and her nine-year-old daughter were riding their bicycles through Dankwardt Park in Burlington, Iowa.  While inadvertently riding on a sewer box that was connected to a public pathway, Breese struck a tree and lost control of her bicycle, falling ten feet to the ground, resulting in injuries.  Plaintiffs alleged that the City was negligent in connecting the sewer box to the pathway without guardrails, in failing to provide warning signs that the pathway reached dangerous heights without a safe turn-around point, and in failing to provide warning signs that the sewer box was not part of the trail system.  On January 16, 2019, the City filed a motion for Summary Judgment asserting two independent grounds: (1) the public-duty doctrine precluded Plaintiffs’ action, and (2) the City was immune from liability under the state-of-the-art defense.

The district court entered an order granting the City’s motion for summary judgment.  Plaintiffs appealed.

The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with Plaintiffs that the public-duty doctrine does not apply to affirmative acts and reversed the district court’s decision on this ground.  The Court stated, “a jury could find that when the City connected the trail and sewer box, it needed to take measures either to make the sewer box a safe portion of the trail, or to warn pedestrians that the box was not part of the public trail.”  The Court held that the district court erred in applying the public-duty doctrine under these circumstances.  For the first time the Iowa Supreme Court made a distinction between affirmative actions and passive non-reaction, holding that the first category is no longer protected by the public duty doctrine.

Contesting the City’s immunity under the state-of-the-art defense, Plaintiffs’ relied on their professional engineering expert to support their claim that the City’s reconstruction of the pathway did not meet the generally recognized safety and engineering standards in existence at that time.  Plaintiffs’ expert asserted that the City could have taken specific steps to prevent this incident, including installation of guardrails, warning signs of the dangerous conditions, and closing the trail. The Court found that the expert’s assertions provided enough evidence to at least raise a fact issue.  Therefore, the district court erred in granting the City’s motion for summary judgment based on the state-of-the-art defense.

Breese v. City of Burlington, No. 19-0484, 2020 WL 3107685 (Iowa 2020)

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