Appellate Court Holds Plaintiffs Cannot Circumvent the Public-Duty Doctrine by Labeling Governmental Actions as “Misfeasance”

Posted on: December 8th, 2021

A police officer was killed during a motor vehicle collision after an intoxicated driver, who was driving on the wrong side of the road, struck the police officer’s vehicle. The administrators of the police officer’s estate (Plaintiffs) filed suit against various governmental parties including the State of Iowa, City of Waukee, and City of West Des Moines (Defendants). Plaintiffs alleged Defendants were liable for the fatal motor vehicle collision because of their “misfeasance” or “affirmative acts of negligence.” Specifically, Plaintiffs contended the accident occurred because the road was unsafely designed and constructed, and it was Defendants who contracted with a third party to design and construct the defective roadway. Defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings arguing the public-duty doctrine barred Plaintiffs’ claims against them. The district court denied the motion noting that Plaintiffs’ claims were based on “affirmative acts of negligence” and Defendants appealed.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the Defendants. The Court held the Plaintiffs’ claims were barred by the public-duty doctrine, which precludes liability to individuals if the breach of a duty the government owes is to the general public. The Court noted that Plaintiffs could not circumvent the public-duty doctrine by labeling their claims against the Defendants as “misfeasance.” The Court reasoned that whether characterized as misfeasance (affirmative negligent acts) or nonfeasance (failure to act), the public-duty doctrine is triggered, because Plaintiffs’ claims center on the “government failure to protect the general public from somebody else’s instrumentality.”

The Court reversed the district court and remanded the case for entry of judgment in favor of the Defendants.

Estate of Farrell v. State of Iowa et al., No. 20-1037 (Iowa Ct. App. Nov. 23, 2021).

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