Fulps v. City of Urbandale, No. 19-0221

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMANSFIELD, Justice.
Citation956 N.W.2d 469
Decision Date19 March 2021
Docket NumberNo. 19-0221
Parties Laura H. FULPS and Charles B. Fulps, Appellants, v. CITY OF URBANDALE, Appellee.

956 N.W.2d 469

Laura H. FULPS and Charles B. Fulps, Appellants,
v.
CITY OF URBANDALE, Appellee.

No. 19-0221

Supreme Court of Iowa.

Submitted January 21, 2021
Filed March 19, 2021
Amended April 6, 2021


David J. Hellstern (argued) of Sullivan & Ward, P.C., West Des Moines, for appellants.

Thomas M. Boes (until withdrawal) of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, P.C., Des Moines, and then Jason C. Palmer (argued) of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, P.C., Des Moines, for appellee.

Mansfield, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., Waterman, McDonald, Oxley, and McDermott, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed an opinion concurring specially.

MANSFIELD, Justice.

This case requires us again to address the scope of the public-duty doctrine. Cities in Iowa have a statutory and common law duty to build and maintain the public sidewalks in safe condition and for breach of that duty have historically been subject to suit. This historic rule is not at odds with the public-duty doctrine. Generally, that doctrine comes into play when a governmental entity fails to take action (nonfeasance) with respect to a third party—typically by failing to exercise statutory authority with respect to the third party's activity. Such a failure to enforce a statute enacted for the public benefit is considered a breach of a "public duty" and not enough to give rise to a tort action. But defectively constructed or poorly maintained sidewalks are a different matter. There, the governmental entity is simply being held legally responsible for its own property and work.

With these principles in mind, we conclude that a lawsuit brought by an injured pedestrian against a city over a defective city sidewalk should not have been dismissed for failure to state a claim based on the public-duty doctrine. We reverse and remand for further proceedings.

I. Facts and Procedural Background.

Because this case involves an appeal from the grant of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, we assume the truth of the well-pleaded factual allegations of the petition.

On October 9, 2016, plaintiff Laura Fulps was volunteering for an event held in the Cobblestone Shopping Center located at the corner of 86th Street and Hickman Road in Urbandale. While walking along the 86th Street sidewalk, Fulps fell. The cause of her fall was the condition of the sidewalk: it was uneven, damaged, and improperly maintained. As a result of the fall, Fulps broke her arm and wrist. She

956 N.W.2d 471

had to have surgery and has sustained temporary and permanent injuries.

On October 8, 2018, Fulps and her spouse sued the City of Urbandale in the Polk County District Court. Fulps's claim was for negligence. Specifically, Fulps alleged the City had failed to properly maintain, repair, and warn about the dangerous, defective, and uneven sidewalk. Fulps sought damages including medical expenses, pain and suffering, and loss of income. Fulps's spouse brought a separate claim for loss of consortium.1

In lieu of answering, the City filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Citing Johnson v. Humboldt County , 913 N.W.2d 256 (Iowa 2018), the City urged that the public-duty doctrine barred Fulps's claims. In her resistance, Fulps responded that a municipality does owe a legal duty to pedestrians to maintain sidewalks.

Following a hearing, the district court entered a ruling on January 25, 2019, granting the City's motion to dismiss. Fulps appealed, and we retained the appeal.

II. Standard of Review.

"We review rulings on motions to dismiss for correction of errors at law." Karon v. Elliott Aviation , 937 N.W.2d 334, 339 (Iowa 2020).

III. Sidewalks and Public Duties.

A. Our Precedent Relating to Sidewalks . Successful lawsuits against municipalities over hazardous sidewalks are nothing new. Somewhat arbitrarily, we will pick up our narrative about one hundred years ago, but we could go further back. In Howard v. City of Waterloo , we affirmed a verdict in favor of a pedestrian who stumbled and fell on a defective sidewalk. 206 Iowa 1109, 1110, 1113, 221 N.W. 812, 812, 813–14 (1928). We explained,

While the city is not bound to maintain perfection in its sidewalks, it is bound to exercise reasonable care to maintain its walks in a reasonably safe condition. It is shown by the record that the defect complained of existed for a period of more than two years prior to the time of plaintiff's injury. It was for the jury to say whether the officers of the defendant city, with the description of the place as given by the plaintiff, of the protruding cement on the rough and jagged edge of the triangular piece resting 1 3/4 inches to 2 1/4 inches above the sunken, broken off portion of the cement block could reasonably have anticipated an injury to some one, exercising due care, such as befell the plaintiff.

Id. at 1113, 221 N.W. at 813–14. In Thompson v. City of Sigourney , 212 Iowa 1348, 237 N.W. 366 (1931), we again affirmed a verdict in a case where a pedestrian fell on a deteriorated walkway with pieces of concrete, stating, "The walk in question extending across the west end of the alley, if not a crosswalk, is a sidewalk. In either event, it was defendant's duty to use reasonable care to keep it in repair." Id. at 1350, 237 N.W. at 367. In Beach v. City of Des Moines , also involving a pedestrian's fall on a cracked sidewalk, we reversed a directed verdict for the city. 238 Iowa 312, 313, 26 N.W.2d 81, 82 (1947). We noted the existence of

a legislative mandate that cities and towns shall exercise reasonable care to see that their sidewalks are maintained in a reasonably safe condition. Whether or not they do so maintain them ‘is nearly always a question for the jury.’

Id. at 336, 26 N.W.2d at 94 (quoting’

956 N.W.2d 472

Allen v. City of Fort Dodge , 183 Iowa 818, 821–22, 826, 167 N.W. 577, 578 (1918) ). We added,

Appellee contends that the defects were so trivial and inconsequential that it owed no duty to repair or remedy them. The photograph refutes this contention. If it owed no duty to repair the defects in this sidewalk, then it owed no greater duty with respect to every other sidewalk in every other residential district. Such conduct on the part of the appellee and its officers would be a flagrant violation of its common law and statutory duty.

Id. at 336–37, 26 N.W.2d at 94.

In Spechtenhauser v. City of Dubuque , we affirmed a jury verdict against a city in "a sidewalk fall down case." 391 N.W.2d 213, 213 (Iowa 1986) (en banc). We stated that "sidewalks are a portion of the city street reserved for pedestrian traffic for which the city bears a responsibility of care, supervision, and control." Id. at 214–15.

Additionally, there has long been a statute on the books that governs personal injury claims against special charter cities "resulting from defective streets or sidewalks." Iowa Code § 420.45 (2021); see also Gleason v. City of Davenport , 275 N.W.2d 431, 436 (Iowa 1979) (holding that an earlier version of the statute violated equal protection because there was no rational basis for a different time limitation to be mandated for claims against special charter cities as opposed to other municipalities). The presence of statutory language referring to defective street and sidewalk claims indicates that such claims are available against municipalities.

This principle of municipal liability makes sense given that the city owns the sidewalk. See Peffers v. City of Des Moines , 299 N.W.2d 675, 677 (Iowa 1980) ("The abutting owner does not own the sidewalk ...."), superseded on other grounds by 1984 Iowa Acts ch. 1002, § 1 (codified at Iowa Code § 364.12(2) (1985)). In fact, Peffers took note of "the existing state of our case law holding, the city rather than the abutting property owner liable to pedestrians." Id. at 679.

This gets us to Madden v. City of Iowa City , 848 N.W.2d 40 (Iowa 2014). In that case, a bicyclist fell while riding on a sidewalk in Iowa City and brought a negligence action against the city for failing to maintain the sidewalk in a safe condition. Id. at 42. The city filed a cross-petition against the owner of the abutting property (the State of Iowa) seeking contribution based on a city ordinance. Id. We affirmed denial of the owner's motion to dismiss the cross-petition. Id. at 43.

We noted that Iowa Code section 364.12(2), the successor to the statute involved in Beach , provides in part,

A city shall keep all ... sidewalks ... in repair, and free from nuisance, with the following exceptions:

....

(b ) The abutting property owner is responsible for the removal of the natural accumulations of snow and ice from the sidewalks within a reasonable amount of time and may be liable for damages caused by the failure of the abutting property owner to use reasonable care in the removal of the snow or ice....

(c ) The abutting property owner may be required by ordinance to maintain all property outside the lot and property lines and inside the curb lines upon the public streets ....

Id. at 45–46 (omissions in original) (quoting Iowa Code § 364.12(2) ). We further noted that the city...

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4 practice notes
  • Maldonado v. City of Sibley, 20-CV-4029-LRR
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • August 24, 2021
    ...instrumentality[.]” Breese v. City of Burlington, 945 N.W.2d 12, 21 (Iowa 2020) (citations omitted). In Fulps v. City of Urbandale, 956 N.W.2d 469 (Iowa 2021), the Iowa Supreme Court explained more fully that: [T]he public duty doctrine generally comes into play when there is a confluence o......
  • Estate of Farrell v. State, 20-1037
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • November 23, 2021
    ...for that inquiry. In several recent cases, our supreme court tackled the doctrine and refined the steps for our analysis. See Fulps, 956 N.W.2d at 469; Breese, 945 N.W.2d at 12; Johnson v. Humboldt Cnty., 913 N.W.2d 256 (Iowa 2018).[9] Similar to the Fulps case, we address the arguments at ......
  • Cornbelt Running Club v. City of Riverdale, 21-0765
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • March 2, 2022
    ...("It is [the city's] duty to maintain its sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition."); see also Fulps v. City of Urbandale, 956 N.W.2d 469, 474-75 (Iowa 2021) ("[A] lawsuit brought by an injured pedestrian against a city over a defective city sidewalk should not have been dis......
  • Houdek v. State, 20-1304
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • November 3, 2021
    ...court clarified that "the public-duty doctrine generally comes into play only when there is a confluence of two factors." 956 N.W.2d 469, 473 (Iowa 2021). First, the injury to the plaintiff was directly caused inflicted by a third party or other independent force. Second, the plai......
4 cases
  • Maldonado v. City of Sibley, 20-CV-4029-LRR
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
    • August 24, 2021
    ...instrumentality[.]” Breese v. City of Burlington, 945 N.W.2d 12, 21 (Iowa 2020) (citations omitted). In Fulps v. City of Urbandale, 956 N.W.2d 469 (Iowa 2021), the Iowa Supreme Court explained more fully that: [T]he public duty doctrine generally comes into play when there is a confluence o......
  • Estate of Farrell v. State, 20-1037
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • November 23, 2021
    ...for that inquiry. In several recent cases, our supreme court tackled the doctrine and refined the steps for our analysis. See Fulps, 956 N.W.2d at 469; Breese, 945 N.W.2d at 12; Johnson v. Humboldt Cnty., 913 N.W.2d 256 (Iowa 2018).[9] Similar to the Fulps case, we address the arguments at ......
  • Cornbelt Running Club v. City of Riverdale, 21-0765
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • March 2, 2022
    ...("It is [the city's] duty to maintain its sidewalks in a reasonably safe condition."); see also Fulps v. City of Urbandale, 956 N.W.2d 469, 474-75 (Iowa 2021) ("[A] lawsuit brought by an injured pedestrian against a city over a defective city sidewalk should not have been dis......
  • Houdek v. State, 20-1304
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Iowa
    • November 3, 2021
    ...court clarified that "the public-duty doctrine generally comes into play only when there is a confluence of two factors." 956 N.W.2d 469, 473 (Iowa 2021). First, the injury to the plaintiff was directly caused inflicted by a third party or other independent force. Second, the plai......

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