Tuesday, March 20, 2007, 4:13 PM

COA Splits Again Over Public Duty Doctrine

In Watts v. N.C. Dep't of Env't & Natural Res., filed today, the COA split again over the application of the public duty doctrine.

The public duty doctrine limits government tort liability even where sovereign immunity has been waived. The doctrine provides that where the government owes a duty to the general public, individual plaintiffs may not enforce the duty through suing in tort.

Notably, the public duty doctrine does not apply where (1) there is a special relationship between the injured party and the governmental entity, and (2) the governmental entity creates a special duty by promising protection, which it then fails to provide despite the other party's detrimental reliance on the promise.

In Watts, the plaintiff bought undeveloped land with the intent to develop a house on it. At the time of purchase, the soil had been tested and a permit allowing for the intended development had been issued. Later, when the plaintiff sought approval for an unrelated change to the development plan, the permit was revoked because the soil was in fact not suitable for the intended development.

The Watts majority held that DENR stipulated to facts that, in and of themselves, supported the application of the special duty exception to the public duty doctrine and opened DENR up to tort liability.

Judge Tyson dissented. Judge Tyson would have held that the public duty doctrine applied and that plaintiff's suit against DENR was barred by the doctrine. In Judge Tyson's view, the plaintiff failed to assert or prove either exception to the public duty doctrine.

Particularly interesting is Judge Tyson's determination that DENR's inspection and issuance of permits is a duty owed to the general public and not to any individual such as the owner of the property subject to the permits. Isn't just about every State duty intended in some way to benefit the public? Couldn't just about every State duty therefore be cast as a public duty, thereby obliterating the exceptions to the public duty doctrine? The pending Multiple Claimants v. N.C. Dep't of Health & Human Servs., in which Judge Tyson also dissented and would have applied the public duty doctrine to bar suit, has already put the public duty doctrine and how to apply exceptions to it before the Supreme Court.

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