Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Supreme Court rejects "public duty" defense for public employees

In a 6-1 opinion last week, the Supreme Court ruled that the “public duty rule” does not immunize employees of a political subdivision from personal liability for injuries they cause in the performance of their official duties in cases where the injured party alleges that the employee engaged in “wanton or reckless conduct.”

In that case, the estate of the a woman killed by a drunk driver brought a lawsuit against police officers employed by a city. The suit alleged that the police officers allowed the drunk driver, who had been arrested the day before, to improperly obtain his vehicle. After improperly obtaining his vehicle, the day after his arrest, the drunk driver killed the woman in a head-on collission. Her estate alleged that the police officers acted wantonly and recklessly in allowing the drunk driver to obtain his vehicle the day after his arrest. The police officers alleged that the common law "public duty doctrine" applied. That doctrine provides immunity from civil liability in cases where a public employee causes injury to a third party through the breach of a “public duty,” i.e., by failing to perform a general duty owed to the public as a whole, as opposed to an individualized duty owed to the specific person seeking damages.

The Supreme Court refused to apply the "public duty" doctrine to the matter.

The relevance to educators is that despite the public duty doctrine, they may still be held liable for actions that are deemed to be "wanton or reckless."

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