City Not Liable for Acts of Fleeing Suspect
The recent Tennessee Court of Appeals Holt v. City of Fayetteville examined the application of the public duty doctrine to bar a suit against a public employee.
Henry Holt, Sr. died in a car accident when his car was struck by a police car driven by an individual – Misty Shelton – who had been placed under arrest by the Fayetteville Police Department. Mr. Holt’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit on his behalf alleging that the arresting officer did not follow proper procedures in arresting Ms. Shelton by failing to properly restrain her, which then allowed her to flee in the police car that struck Mr. Holt’s car. The named defendants were the City of Fayetteville, the Fayetteville Police Department, John Doe Police Officer, and Misty Shelton.
The City raised the defense of sovereign immunity in its answer and later filed a motion to dismiss under Rule 12.02(6), asserting that the City was immune under the GTLA and the public duty doctrine. The trial court found that immunity under the GTLA had been removed, but that the claims were barred by the public duty doctrine. Plaintiffs appealed.
Under the GTLA, Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 29-20-202 to -204, sovereign immunity can be removed in one of these circumstances: (1) negligent operation of motor vehicle by employees; (2) defective or dangerous roadways; (3) defective or dangerous public improvements; and (4) negligent acts of employees (with nine enumerated exceptions). Plaintiffs argued initially that immunity should be removed under number (1) – because an injury was caused by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle by an employee.
The Court of Appeals could not square Plaintiffs’ allegation that the injury had been caused by the negligent manner in which the officer restrained Shelton with the plain GTLA language removing immunity for the negligent operation of a motor vehicle. In addition, Plaintiffs could not point to any applicable case law supporting their position. Thus, Plaintiffs’ argument that immunity was removed because of an officer’s negligent operation of a motor vehicle failed.
Plaintiff’s argument that immunity was removed based on the negligent acts of the police officer fared better before the Court of Appeals; however, the Court did not conduct a complete analysis of all nine exceptions to the removal of immunity because the City did not contend that any of them applied. The Court instead moved quickly to the analysis of the public duty doctrine.
The Court explained the public duty doctrine, stating that it “shields a public employee from suits for injuries that are caused by the public employee’s breach of a duty owed to the public at large.” The Court noted that an exception to this doctrine applies “if a special relationship exists between the plaintiff and governmental employee giving rise to a special duty.” Plaintiffs argued that this doctrine did not apply because they were not seeking recovery for breach of a duty to the public. The Court rejected this argument out-of-hand, observing that the police officer’s decision to arrest a suspect and then properly secure him or her is a duty owed to the public at large. For this reason, the City would be immune unless the special-duty exception applied.
This exception applies where there is a particular duty to the individual plaintiff. In this instance, Plaintiffs did not allege any affirmative undertaking by the City of its employees to specifically protect Plaintiffs. In addition, the Court rejected the Plaintiffs’ attempts to salvage this exception by asserting that a special duty was imposed by either the pursuit statute, Tenn. Code Ann. 55-8-108, or by a traffic statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-162, concerning when motor vehicles may be allowed to stand unattended.
The pursuit statute requires law enforcement officers to drive with “due regard for the safety of all persons” when pursuing a fleeing party. The Court found that this statute simply did not apply in this circumstance because there was no allegation that the police officer was in pursuit of Shelton when the accident occurred or that any such pursuit was negligent. Moreover, the Court found that Plaintiffs failed to allege any violation of the traffic statute, Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-162, in their complaint.
For these reasons, therefore, the Court concluded that the City of Fayetteville could not be sued in this instance under the public duty doctrine and affirmed the decision of the trial court in dismissing Plaintiffs’ claims.
This is a hard case for the plaintiffs in a clearly tragic situation. Immunity questions aside, it is difficult for the plaintiffs to show the causal nexus between the police officer’s actions and the harm ultimately caused by a third-party’s criminal conduct.
This article and more timely developments in Tennessee law are available to subscribers of the Tennessee Tort Law Letter. For more information, click here.