Although it’s commonly said that police “protect and serve,” a local government is not necessarily liable when its sworn officers fail to protect the general public from harm. In a 1993 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court adopted what became known as a “public duty doctrine.” This doctrine holds that a municipality can only be liable for nonfeasance–a police officer’s failure to act–if there’s a “special relationship” between the individual alleging negligence and the local government. As defined by the Georgia Supreme Court, this means the police must give the person “an explicit assurance” of protection or assistance that the person then relies upon to his or her detriment.
Stevenson v. City of Doraville
Recently, the Supreme Court considered the application of the public duty doctrine to a negligence lawsuit arising from a multi-car traffic accident in DeKalb County. During a rainstorm one evening, a driver on Interstate 285 experienced car trouble. The driver was in the lane nearest the median. He attempted to cross six lanes and bring his car onto the shoulder, but the car stalled in the middle of the road.
Nearby, a City of Doraville police officer saw the driver’s stalled car. The officer engaged the flashing blue police lights on his own vehicle. He then assumed a position behind and to the right of the stalled car. The officer contacted his dispatch for additional assistance and waited in his vehicle.
The driver, who assumed the police officer was there to render assistance directly, exited his own vehicle and tried to get the officer’s attention. At that moment, a second car, switching lanes to avoid a merging tractor trailer, moved into the same lane as the disabled car, hitting that car, injuring its driver and causing a multiple-car accident.
The injured driver sued the city and the police officer. He argued the police officer’s decision to engage his blue lights without rendering further assistance prevented the injured driver from helping himself. Furthermore, by parking his car behind and to the right of the disabled vehicle, the officer actually diverted traffic–including the second car that caused the accident–into the plaintiff’s lane.
The trial court, the Georgia Court of Appeals, and ultimately the Georgia Supreme Court all agreed that the city and the officer were entitled to summary judgment. The Supreme Court noted that while the public duty doctrine applied to nonfeasance by the city, it did not extend to “affirmative acts of negligence” or misfeasance. To the extent the driver could prove the officer’s actions, rather than his failure to act, contributed to the accident, summary judgment would not be appropriate.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court said the driver’s first argument–the officer flashed his blue lights without rendering additional aid–alleged nonfeasance, which was clearly covered by the public duty doctrine. There was no evidence this act alone prevented anyone, including the driver himself, from rendering assistance. Nor did the officer’s flashing lights create a “special relationship” between him and the driver; the officer was merely warning other drivers of a hazard.
As to the claim that the officer’s actions improperly diverted traffic into the disable vehicle’s lane, that could constitute misfeasance, the Supreme Court said, but the driver failed to present any evidence this was the case. The driver contended the police car was actually in the first lane of traffic when it flashed its lights, creating a hazard. The officer said his car remained on the shoulder before and during the accident. As the driver could produce no witnesses to contradict the officer’s testimony, the Supreme Court said the lower courts properly granted summary judgment on this active negligence claim.