Court upholds dismissal of veteran's wrongful death claim but overturns ruling regarding "public duty" doctrine
Christopher Willis went on a bender after returning from duty in Iraq and, under the influence of alcohol and drugs, precipitated a multi-vehicle accident on the highway. The high speed collision created chaos on the scene and Willis was prematurely deemed by first-responders to be deceased. His family sued those responders when it learned that Willis might have survived if he had been assessed more accurately at the scene. The trial court dismissed the death claim, holding that since the first-responders owed a duty to the public to act in an emergency, they could not be held accountable to any particular individual. The trial judge believed that the "public duty" doctrine compelled this outcome.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals affirmed the outcome but on a different basis. It held that public actors enjoy broad protections under the governmental immunity statutes (which require, for example, that gross negligence be THE cause of the injury or death, not mere negligence combined with other causes). Clearly, THE dominating cause of the death was Willis' motor vehicle accident, not emergency medical care deficiencies.
The Court held that the public duty doctrine shields only police officers who allegedly fail to protect a private party from the criminal actions of a third-party. It does not apply where a duty to aid a private party is inherent in the actor's "public duty." In the latter case, the governmental immunity statutes are applied to define and interpret the state actor's private duty.