Public-Duty Doctrine Law & Legal Definition


Public duty doctrine is a principle of personal injury law that government owes duties to the public at large rather than individuals. In general, this doctrine provides that a governmental entity can be held liable only when the duty breached was owed to the injured person as an individual and was not merely the breach of an obligation owed to the public at large. Governmental duty to protect its citizens is a general duty to the public as a whole. When there is only a general duty to protect the public, there is no duty of care to an individual citizen which may result in liability. In short a duty to all is a duty to no one. However this doctrine is not followed in many U.S. States. For example Florida Supreme Court explicitly holds that the public duty doctrine has no continuing vitality under Florida law subsequent to the effective date of Fla. Stat. ch. 768.28.[Lewis v. City of St. Petersburg, 260 F.3d 1260 (11th Cir. Fla. 2001)]

In the context of the public duty doctrine, to establish a special relationship, the plaintiff must show (1) some form of privity or direct contact between the government agency and the plaintiff that sets the plaintiff apart from the general public; (2) the agency gave the plaintiff specific assurances that resulted in the agency undertaking a duty; and (3) the plaintiff justifiably relied upon those assurances. [O'Brien v. City of Tacoma, 247 Fed. Appx. 58 (9th Cir. Wash. 2007)]

The following are a few case law discussing the doctrine:

Under the legislative intent exception, the public duty doctrine does not apply when the terms of a legislative enactment evidence an intent to identify and protect a particular and circumscribed class of persons.[Saunders v. United States, 99 Fed. Appx. 814 (9th Cir. Wash. 2004)]

Regarding the "special duty exception" to the public duty doctrine, a special duty of care exists when (1) officials, by their actions, affirmatively undertake to protect the plaintiff, and the plaintiff relies upon the undertaking; 2) a statute specifically provides for a cause of action against an official or municipality for injuries resulting to a particular class of individuals, of which the plaintiff is a member, from failure to enforce certain laws; or 3) the plaintiff alleges a cause of action involving intent, malice, or reckless misconduct.[DePalma v. Metro. Gov't of Nashville, 40 Fed. Appx. 187 (6th Cir. Tenn. 2002)]