Cope v. Utah Valley State Coll.

Decision Date21 November 2014
Docket NumberNo. 20130016.,20130016.
Citation2014 UT 53,342 P.3d 243
PartiesShawnna Rae COPE, Appellant, v. UTAH VALLEY STATE COLLEGE, Appellee.
CourtUtah Supreme Court

Terry M. Plant, Stewart B. Harman, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Sean D. Reyes, Att'y Gen., J. Clifford Petersen, Asst. Att'y Gen., Salt Lake City, for appellee.

Michael D. Zimmerman, Troy L. Booher, Julie J. Nelson, Salt Lake City, for Amicus Curiae.

Justice DURHAM, opinion of the Court:


¶ 1 Shawnna Cope was injured while practicing with the Utah Valley State College (UVSC) ballroom dance team, and sued the state-owned college.1 The district court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the public duty doctrine dictated that UVSC owed no duty of care to Ms. Cope. The court of appeals subsequently held that the public duty doctrine did not apply to Ms. Cope's lawsuit and reversed the trial court. We granted certiorari.

¶ 2 Having requested additional briefing from the parties, we take this opportunity to clarify the public duty doctrine. First, we decline to abrogate the doctrine, as several other states have done, and retain the public duty doctrine as part of Utah's common law.

Second, we overturn in part Webb v. University of Utah, 2005 UT 80, 125 P.3d 906, and hold that the public duty doctrine applies only to the omissions of a governmental actor. The doctrine does not immunize the State from liability for affirmative acts that harm a plaintiff. Third, we clarify that the public duty doctrine is limited to situations where a plaintiff seeks to impose liability for a duty to protect the general public from external harms.

¶ 3 Applying these principles to this case, we hold that the public duty doctrine does not negate UVSC's duty of care toward student members of a ballroom dance team created and overseen by the college. We therefore reverse the district court, although for reasons different from those expressed by the court of appeals, and remand for further proceedings.


¶ 4 Ms. Cope was a member of a ballroom dance team at UVSC, a state-owned college. She was also enrolled in a ballroom dance class that awarded her credit for her participation with the team. During a team practice, Ms. Cope was rehearsing a choreographed dance routine that required her partner to lift her to his shoulder as she completed a back flip. When couples on the dance team learn a new lift, spotters are usually provided to catch the female dancer if she falls. On this particular occasion, though, no spotters were requested or provided. Ms. Cope and her partner attempted the lift twice, but they did not properly complete the maneuver. On the first two attempts, her partner lifted Ms. Cope to his right shoulder, which was easier than lifting her across his body to his left shoulder.

¶ 5 Ms. Cope's partner told the class instructor that he had never been able to successfully perform this particular lift, and the instructor told the couple to try the lift again, this time to the left shoulder. The instructor told Ms. Cope to push off with greater force and told her partner to lift with more power, but did not give further guidance on how to complete the maneuver. The instructor also said that if the couple was unable to perform the maneuver properly, he would have to cut it from the routine. On the third attempt Ms. Cope's partner lost his footing, and she fell. Her partner used his body to cushion the fall, but Ms. Cope sustained an injury when her head struck her partner's knee.

¶ 6 Ms. Cope sued UVSC, alleging the college negligently caused her injury. She also alleged UVSC was liable for the class instructor's negligence under the doctrine of respondeat superior. UVSC moved for summary judgment, arguing UVSC owed no duty to protect Ms. Cope from harm because it did not have a special relationship with her. The district court denied the motion and set a trial date. UVSC then renewed its motion for summary judgment, attaching additional evidence that Ms. Cope and her partner had practiced lifting her to the partner's right shoulder prior to the date of the accident.

¶ 7 The district court granted the renewed motion for summary judgment and dismissed Ms. Cope's lawsuit. Relying upon our analysis of the public duty doctrine in Webb v. University of Utah, 2005 UT 80, 125 P.3d 906, the district court ruled that UVSC did not form a special relationship with Ms. Cope, and therefore UVSC owed her no duty of care. The district court reasoned that because Ms. Cope was aware that she was performing a new lift that she and her partner had not successfully completed before, and because the instructor gave her the option of cutting the maneuver from the routine, UVSC did not induce “detrimental reliance creating a greater risk of peril than existed otherwise.”

¶ 8 Ms. Cope appealed, and the court of appeals reversed the district court because it found that the special relationship exception to the public duty doctrine applied to Ms. Cope. Cope v. Utah Valley State Coll., 2012 UT App 319, ¶ 27, 290 P.3d 314. The court of appeals held that “a special relationship is created when (1) a directive is given to a student (2) by a teacher or coach (3) within the scope of the academic enterprise” and found that a special relationship had been formed under the facts of this case. Id. ¶ 17.

¶ 9 This court granted certiorari on the following issue: “Whether the court of appeals erred in its construction and application of the special relationship test articulated by Webb v. University of Utah, 2005 UT 80, 125 P.3d 906.” After the parties presented oral argument to this court, we issued an order requesting supplemental briefing on the following issues:

1. Should the scope and application of the public duty doctrine be limited to public employees with duties to the public as a whole, such as public safety officers?
2. Should the public duty doctrine be applied to affirmative acts of government employees or should the doctrine be limited to omissions?
3. Should the public duty doctrine be retained in our common law?

¶ 10 In this appeal, we review the court of appeals' determination that the district court erred in ruling that neither UVSC nor its employee owed an enforceable duty of care to Ms. Cope. Whether a defendant owes a duty of care to a plaintiff is question of law. B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. West, 2012 UT 11, ¶ 23, 275 P.3d 228. We therefore review de novo a lower court's determination of whether a duty exists. Slisze v. Stanley–Bostitch, 1999 UT 20, ¶ 9, 979 P.2d 317.


¶ 11 In order to prevail in an action for negligence, a plaintiff must prove that (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care, (2) the defendant breached that duty, and (3) the breach proximately caused (4) the plaintiff to suffer legally compensable damages. B.R. ex rel. Jeffs v. West, 2012 UT 11, ¶ 5 n. 2, 275 P.3d 228. The first element of a negligence claim, a duty of care, “may be defined as an obligation, to which the law will give recognition and effect, to conform to a particular standard of conduct toward another.” Normandeau v. Hanson Equip., Inc., 2009 UT 44, ¶ 19, 215 P.3d 152 (internal quotation marks omitted). “A court's conclusion that duty does or does not exist is an expression of the sum total of those considerations of policy which lead the law to say that the plaintiff is [or is not] entitled to protection.” Webb v. Univ. of Utah, 2005 UT 80, ¶ 9, 125 P.3d 906 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 12 When determining whether a government actor owes a duty of care to a plaintiff, we have held that courts must evaluate whether the public duty doctrine dictates that an individual may not enforce a public duty in tort. Under this doctrine, “a plaintiff cannot recover for the breach of a duty owed to the general public, but must show that a duty is owed to him or her as an individual.” Madsen v. Borthick, 850 P.2d 442, 444 (Utah 1993) ; accord Ferree v. State, 784 P.2d 149, 151 (Utah 1989) (“For a governmental agency and its agents to be liable for negligently caused injury suffered by a member of the public, the plaintiff must show a breach of a duty owed him as an individual, not merely the breach of an obligation owed to the general public at large by the governmental official.”). In other words, “a duty to all is a duty to none.” Cannon v. Univ. of Utah, 866 P.2d 586, 588 (Utah Ct.App.1993) (internal quotation marks omitted). The public duty doctrine is based on the policy determination that when a governmental entity assumes a duty to protect the general public from harms such as criminal activity, holding the entity liable for a breach of this duty would cause municipalities to be “mired hopelessly in civil lawsuits ... for every infraction of the law.” Prosser v. Kennedy Enters., Inc., 342 Mont. 209, 179 P.3d 1178, 1183 (2008). If a plaintiff's negligence claim is based upon a public duty, courts will recognize the duty only if the plaintiff establishes a special relationship that imposes a specific duty of care toward the plaintiff as an individual that is distinguishable from a public duty owed to the general public. Madsen, 850 P.2d at 444.

¶ 13 In deciding whether the public duty doctrine prevents Ms. Cope from establishing the necessary duty element of her negligence cause of action, we first examine the issues outlined for supplemental briefing: (1) whether the public duty doctrine should be retained, (2) whether the doctrine applies to both acts and omissions, and (3) whether the doctrine is limited to employees with duties to the public at large. Because we hold that the public duty doctrine should be retained in our common law, we finally examine whether the doctrine bars Ms. Cope's lawsuit.


¶ 14 The public duty doctrine is recognized in most jurisdictions. See Beaudrie v. Henderson, 465 Mich. 124, 631 N.W.2d 308, 311 (2001). By our count, however, twelve state supreme courts have explicitly rejected or abandoned...

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