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Iowa SC affirms public-duty doctrine bars county from liability in auto accident case; Dissent calls it 'confusing'

By Elizabeth Alt | Jun 26, 2018

DES MOINES (Legal Newsline) – The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a district court ruling that the public-duty doctrine barred Humboldt County from liability for the injuries a passenger suffered when a car crashed into a concrete embankment put up by the landowner.

Justice Edward Mansfield wrote the Supreme Court order issued on June 8, with Justices Daryl Hecht and Brent Appel dissenting.

According to the ruling, Kaitlyn Johnson sustained paralysis and brain damage after a car she was a passenger in veered off the road into a ditch in 2013. In March 2013, David Helmers, Johnson’s spouse at the time, had fallen asleep while driving, and the car veered into a ditch going 58 miles per hour, stopping only when it hit a concrete embankment built by the landowner. 

The embankment, created as part of a cattle grid as a way for people and vehicles to pass the bridge, was on the landowner’s property, however the county had a right-of-way easement where part of the embankment was located.

Johnson sued Humboldt County and the landowners in 2014, claiming that Humboldt was negligent by failing to remove the concrete embankment.

In September 2014, the district court granted summary judgment to the county, noting that although Humboldt has the authority to remove “obstructions in highway right-of-way,” Humboldt did not have a duty to Johnson as a motorist. 

The order stated, “Since the Iowa Supreme Court has clearly found motorists to be a general class that is not afforded a special relationship with the state, all of Johnson’s allegations stemming from Humboldt’s failure to perform its duties under Section 318.4 are not actionable.”

Mansfield noted that the public-duty doctrine states “if a duty is owed to the public generally, there is no liability to an individual member of that group,” and that removing obstructions on the highway is a public duty.

Mansfield stated that the court has determined that the public-duty doctrine “remains good law after our adoption” of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm, rejecting Johnson’s arguments that the Restatement “no longer openly embraces the public-duty doctrine.”

Justices Hecht and Appel stated in the dissent that “the public-duty doctrine is 'confusing and inconsistent.'" The dissent states that the court should “exercise judicial restraint and refrain from engrafting the public-duty doctrine onto the respective statutes.”

Humboldt County is represented by Rene Charles Lapierre and Ryland Deinert of Klass Law Firm LLP of Sioux City, Iowa.

Johnson is represented by Conrad F. Meis with Buchanan, Bibler, Gabor, and Meis, Algona; and Michael K. Bush and John C. Bush with Bush, Motto, Creen, Koury & Halligan PLC in Davenport, Iowa.

Supreme Court of Iowa case number 16–1896

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Buchanan Bibler Gabor & Meis Bush, Motto, Creen & Koury Iowa Supreme Court Klass Law Firm LLP

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