Public Duty Doctrine in Georgia

Can a Georgia municipality be held liable for failing to provide police protection to the public? Under the “public duty doctrine,” cities in Georgia cannot be held liable for a duty of police protection except under special, defined circumstances. The public duty doctrine has broad impact on claims in which a police officer is alleged to have been negligent or failed to act to protect someone, leading to injuries.
A recent Georgia Supreme Court case arose when a police officer failed to respond to a serious injury to Kenyatta Stevenson (the plaintiff). The plaintiff was driving one rainy night when he had car trouble. He tried to drive across multiple lanes of traffic from the left lane to the far right shoulder. He made it across two lanes when his car stalled and stopped in the middle traffic lane.
The plaintiff noticed there was a police car to his right, with its emergency lights on. The police officer inside the car turned on his flashing lights, which the plaintiff interpreted as a signal to him that the police officer would help.
The police vehicle moved to the right and slightly behind the plaintiff’s car. The plaintiff turned on his own emergency flashers and stayed in the car. He assumed the police officer would assist him.
The police officer called dispatch, notified them that the plaintiff’s car had created a hazard and asked for assistance because it was too dangerous to cross traffic and help. The plaintiff left his car after a few minutes to try to talk to the police officer. Another car, shifting lanes to avoid a tractor-trailer, hit the plaintiff’s car. The car in turn hit the plaintiff, causing a multi-vehicle accident.
The plaintiff sued the City and police officer, alleging the police officer was negligent in failing to redirect traffic away from his car and causing traffic to move in his direction by turning on his blue emergency lights.
The City argued that a municipality does not have a duty to protect the the public at large unless there is a special relationship between an individual and a municipality. The special relationship must set the individual apart from the public as a whole, and create a separate special duty. If a special duty is created, a City may be sued for its police department’s “nonfeasance” or failure to perform an act required by law.
To create a special relationship there must be: (1) an explicit assurance by the City that it will act on behalf of the injured party, (2) City knowledge that failing to act could cause harm, and (3) reliance on the City’s affirmative actions by the injured party. The public duty doctrine does not extend to affirmative negligence (or “misfeasance”), but remains restricted to cases involving police nonfeasance.
The City and police officer moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted their motion, ruling that the police officer was shielded by official immunity and the public duty doctrine barred his claims against the City.
The plaintiff appealed the summary judgment ruling. He argued that the public duty doctrine did not apply because he had alleged affirmative acts of negligence not nonfeasance. He also argued that even if the doctrine applied, his case should move forward under the special relationship exception. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s summary judgment ruling.
He asked the Georgia Supreme Court to review. He argued that the police officer was actively negligent by turning on his emergency lights without offering him help, by turning on the lights while stopped behind his car causing traffic to be pushed in his direction, and by stopping a police vehicle in the right lane. The City argued that the police officer had not actively stopped anybody from helping the plaintiff or acted negligently to increase his risk of getting hurt.
The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court, clarifying that the public duty doctrine did not apply to prevent liability in misfeasance cases. Among other things, the Court explained that the plaintiff’s claim that the police officer actively obstructed his efforts to help himself, framed as negligence, was actually a claim of nonfeasance.
The police officer had engaged his emergency lights to assess the situation with the plaintiff’s vehicle and warn travelers about the stalled car, not to provide an explicit assurance to help the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s reliance on signals he misread did not automatically turn the nonfeasance claim into a misfeasance claim. Accordingly the public duty doctrine applied to immunize the City.
If you are seriously injured in a car accident, you may have grounds for a lawsuit. Experienced Atlanta personal injury attorney Terrence R. Bethune can evaluate your case and fight for any compensation you may deserve. Contact us at 404-875-7800 or via our online form.