Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal of Negligence Claim Against District Pursuant to Public Duty Doctrine

On March 28, 2013, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals decided Woods v. District of Columbia, No. 11-CV-1011, slip op. (D.C. Mar. 28, 2013) in which it considered whether a negligence claim against the District of Columbia was barred by the public duty doctrine. Id. at 1-2. By way of background, the public duty doctrine “precludes holding the District liable in negligence based on a duty to the general public rather than on a duty arising out of a special relationship with the plaintiff.” Id. at 2. In other words, “‘[a]bsent a special relationship between the District and an individual, no specific legal duty exists,’ and a suit against the District based on a claim of simple negligence will ‘fail as a matter of law.'” Id. at 4 (brackets omitted; quoting Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1, 3, 4 (D.C. 1981) (en banc)).

In this case, the plaintiff alleged that she “became ill, with symptoms including slurred speech, loss of balance, and vomiting.” Id. at 2. In response to an emergency call, a District of Columbia ambulance crew arrived at the scene and evaluated the plaintiff. Id. The ambulance crew concluded that the plaintiff “became ill because she had recently stopped smoking cigarettes” and advised her that “it was not necessary to transport her to a hospital emergency room for further evaluation or treatment.” Id. at 2-3. Relying on this advice, the plaintiff did not immediately seek further medical attention. Id. at 3. The next morning, however, the plaintiff became ill again and was transported to a hospital where she was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke. Id. The plaintiff subsequently filed a negligence claim against the District alleging that “her medical condition had been worsened by her reliance on an incorrect diagnosis provided to her by District personnel.” Id. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim pursuant to the public duty doctrine. Id.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals considered whether the public duty doctrine barred the plaintiff’s negligence claim; specifically, whether the plaintiff’s allegations established the existence of a “special duty” owed by the District to the plaintiff. Id. at 7-16. The Court of Appeals held that the plaintiff’s claim was barred because no such “special duty” existed. Id. In reaching this result, the Court of Appeals primarily relied on two prior published opinions in which it “held that the public-duty doctrine barred a [negligence] claim” premised on a plaintiff’s alleged reliance “upon actions taken by District emergency personnel in providing the kind of on-the-scene emergency assistance that the District normally provides to the general public.” Id. at 12 (citing Warren, supra, and Miller v. District of Columbia, 841 A.2d 1244 (D.C. 2004)). The Court of Appeals concluded that the plaintiff’s claim “takes the same form” and therefore was “barred by the public-duty doctrine.” Id. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim. Id. at 17.

Although the panel of judges considering this case unanimously affirmed the trial court’s dismissal, one judge wrote a separate concurring opinion “to urge [the Court of Appeals], sitting en banc, to reexamine the scope of the public duty doctrine or perhaps even to abolish it.” Id. at 18. The concurring opinion is quite detailed but the gist of the concerns expressed therein is that the Court of Appeals has “let the [public duty] doctrine sweep far more broadly than is necessary to strike the proper balance between protecting the District from sweeping liability, on the one hand, and allowing the District’s citizens the chance to prove that their government has failed them miserably, on the other.” Id. at 18. The concurring opinion states, inter alia, that “[i]t is quite difficult to understand why an individual citizen after being examined [by the District’s emergency medical technicians], has no right to rely on . . . [them] to accurately diagnose his or her medical condition or rely on their recommendation as to whether or not further medical assistance is needed . . . .” Id. at 23.