Cope v. Utah Valley State Coll.

Decision Date21 November 2014
Docket NumberNo. 20130016.,20130016.
Citation774 Utah Adv. Rep. 14
CourtUtah Supreme Court
PartiesShawnna Rae COPE, Appellant, v. UTAH VALLEY STATE COLLEGE, Appellee.


Judgment of District Court reversed and remanded.

[342 P.3d 246]

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.

[342 P.3d 247]

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.

¶ 15 We disagree with the reasoning of the courts that have abandoned the public duty doctrine. The public duty doctrine is not a subsidiary branch of sovereign immunity, as asserted by some courts. See Adams, 555 P.2d at 241. Rather, the doctrine informs a court's determination of whether a government actor owes a common law duty of care to a plaintiff. Day v. State, 1999 UT 46, ¶ 10, 980 P.2d 1171 (treating the public duty doctrine and sovereign immunity as separate and distinct legal principles); Higgins v. Salt Lake Cnty., 855 P.2d 231, 235 (Utah 1993) (same). “Conceptually, the question of the applicability of a statutory immunity does not even arise until it is determined that a defendant otherwise owes a duty of care to the plaintiff and thus would be liable in the absence of such immunity.” Ferree v. State, 784 P.2d 149, 153 (Utah 1989) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Turner v. United States, 248 U.S. 354, 358, 39 S.Ct. 109, 63 L.Ed. 291 (1919) (“The fundamental obstacle to recover [under the public duty doctrine] is not the immunity of a sovereign to suit, but the lack of a substantive right to recover the damages resulting from failure of a government or its officers to keep the peace.”).

¶ 16 We therefore see no reason to deviate from our prior holding that

the legislature's abrogation of absolute sovereign immunity does not lead to the conclusion that the public duty doctrine has also been abrogated. Legislative recognition of a right to recover from one who has previously been immune from liability for tortious acts cannot logically be read as an elimination of the requirement that before one can recover damages from another, a tort must be proven. There must still be proof of a duty owed to the one claiming injury and a breach of that duty.

Rollins v. Petersen, 813 P.2d 1156, 1162 n. 3 (Utah 1991); see also Arthurs ex rel. Estate of Munn v. Aiken Cnty., 346 S.C. 97, 551 S.E.2d 579, 583 (2001) (“Since the public duty rule is not grounded in immunity but rather in duty, we hold it has not been affected by [the legislative abrogation of absolute sovereign immunity].” (Citations omitted)). In fact, this court did not adopt the public duty doctrine until several years after the legislature first limited Utah's sovereign immunity in 1965 by passing the Governmental Immunity Act.1965 Utah Laws 390–97; Obray v. Malmberg, 26 Utah 2d 17, 484 P.2d 160, 162 (1971). Thus, Utah's abrogation of absolute

[342 P.3d 250]

sovereign immunity could not impliedly extinguish a doctrine not yet recognized by this court.3

¶ 17 Stare decisis bolsters our decision to retain the public duty doctrine. This court has consistently applied the doctrine for over forty years.4 Presumably, government officials and employees have relied upon this long-standing legal principle in performing their public duties, and we should not disrupt the status quo without good cause to do so. See Carter v. Lehi City, 2012 UT 2, ¶ 6, 269 P.3d 141. As noted above, we find no compelling legal rationale for abandoning the public duty doctrine, and therefore follow our precedent recognizing it.

¶ 18 Having affirmed the continued validity of the public duty doctrine in Utah, we next examine its proper scope.


¶ 19 In Webb v. University of Utah, we held that the public duty doctrine applies to both acts and omissions. 2005 UT 80, ¶ 15, 125 P.3d 906. Having invited the parties to brief the continued viability of this principle, we consider whether to modify this holding. We “may not do so lightly.” State v. Menzies, 889 P.2d 393, 399 n. 3 (Utah 1994). This court should overturn its own precedent only “where the decision is clearly erroneous or conditions have changed so as to render the prior decision inapplicable.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). In addition, we consider whether overturning a precedent would undermine the public's substantial reliance upon an established legal principle. As we have noted, people should know what their legal rights are as defined by judicial precedent, and having conducted their affairs in reliance on such rights, ought not to have them swept away by judicial fiat.” Carter v. Lehi City, 2012 UT 2, ¶ 6, 269 P.3d 141 (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 20 In deciding whether Webb was clearly erroneous, we first examine the legal support for our conclusions in that opinion to determine its precedential weight. Menzies, 889 P.2d at 399 (overturning the holding of an opinion because it was “not the most weighty of precedents”). We then look to the origins and purpose of the public duty doctrine to determine whether our conclusion in Webb—that the doctrine extends to affirmative acts—is clearly erroneous. Finally, we consider whether substantial reliance interests in the Webb holding counsel against overturning our precedent.

¶ 21 Webb states that “governmental actors are not accountable for their affirmative acts unless a special relationship is present.” 2005 UT 80, ¶ 16, 125 P.3d 906. In support of this declaration, we cited Day v. State, where we held that a general public duty “does not impose a specific duty of due care on the government with respect to individuals who may be harmed by governmental action or inaction, unless there is” a special relationship. 1999 UT 46, ¶ 12, 980 P.2d 1171 (emphasis added). But at this point in tracing the origins of our holding in Webb, the trail goes cold. The authorities cited in Day do not discuss the extension of the public duty doctrine to affirmative acts that cause harm. See id. Moreover, the Day court explicitly recognized in a footnote that several courts have held that the public duty rule does not apply to affirmative acts. Id. ¶ 13 n. 2 (“Some courts have also recognized

[342 P.3d 251]

an exception to the public duty rule where there is an affirmative act by the officer causing injury.” (internal quotation marks omitted)). So, not only is Day 's statement that “governmental action or inaction” is covered by the public duty doctrine of uncertain origin and devoid of analysis, but the opinion also points to authority that contradicts this conclusion. Thus, Webb 's conclusion that the public duty doctrine applies to affirmative acts apparently builds on the shaky foundation of our unsubstantiated stray dicta in Day.

¶ 22 Additionally, the clear preponderance of caselaw contradicts our assertion in Webb. The origins of the public duty doctrine can be traced back to South v. Maryland, 59 U.S. (18 How.) 396, 15 L.Ed. 433 (1855). In that case, the plaintiff asserted that “certain evil[-]disposed persons came about him, hindered and prevented him, threatened his life, with force of arms demanded of him a large sum of money, and imprisoned and detained him for the space of four days, and until he paid them the sum of $2,500 for his enlargement.” Id. at 401 (internal quotation marks omitted). The plaintiff requested protection from the local sheriff, who was apparently present for at least a portion of the ordeal, but the sheriff refused to assist him. Id. The plaintiff then sued the sheriff, alleging the sheriff had neglected to execute the duty imposed by his position to keep the peace. Id. The Supreme Court held, however, that the sheriff could not be held liable for breach of his public duties as conservator of the peace “by those who have suffered injury to their property or persons through the violence of mobs, riots, or insurrections.” Id. at 403. The Court noted that because the plaintiff had not alleged that his individual rights and privileges had “been restrained or hindered by the malicious act of the sheriff,” the plaintiff had not pled a viable cause of action against the sheriff. Id. (emphasis added). Thus, the Supreme Court established that a public official could not be held liable for a failure to perform a public duty, but suggested that the...

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