Powell v. District of Columbia, No. 90-1016.

Docket NºNo. 90-1016.
Citation602 A.2d 1123
Case DateFebruary 14, 1992
CourtCourt of Appeals of Columbia District

602 A.2d 1123

Verdina POWELL, Appellant,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Appellee.

No. 90-1016.

District of Columbia Court of Appeals.

Argued October 22, 1991.

Decided February 14, 1992.


602 A.2d 1124

Richard S. Schrager, for appellant.

Edward E. Schwab, Asst. Corp. Counsel, with whom Charles L. Reischel, Deputy Corp. Counsel, was on the brief, for appellee.

Before ROGERS, Chief Judge, SCHWELB and FARRELL, Associate Judges.

ROGERS, Chief Judge:

Appellant Verdina Powell seeks reversal of the judgment dismissing her lawsuit as barred by the public duty doctrine. We reverse, holding that the trial judge erred

602 A.2d 1125
by concluding that under the public duty doctrine the District of Columbia government could not be held liable in tort for the negligence of its employee in issuing the wrong automobile license tags and registration number for appellant's car since appellant sufficiently alleged a special duty as would bring her within the "special relationship" exception to the public duty doctrine

I

Appellant purchased a 1984 Ford Escort in April 1986, registered the car in the District of Columbia, and received D.C. license tags bearing the number 131-772. Thereafter, on December 6, 1986, she was stopped by an Anne Arundel County, Maryland police officer and her car was impounded when a computer check, through the Washington Area Law Enforcement System (WALES), incorrectly indicated that appellant's registration number belonged to another individual.1 Based on these events, appellant sued the District of Columbia government (District), alleging that it negligently issued her a registration certificate and license plates that had previously been issued to Ms. Althea Hinds, and negligently entered her registration information into the WALES system. The trial judge granted the District's motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the suit was barred by the public duty doctrine.

II

Under the public duty doctrine:

the District of Columbia and its agents owe no duty to provide public services to particular citizens as individuals. Instead, absent some "special relationship" between the government and the individual, the District's duty is to provide public services to the public at large.

Hines v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 133, 136 (D.C.1990) (citing Turner v. District of Columbia, 532 A.2d 662 (D.C.1987); Morgan v. District of Columbia, 468 A.2d 1306 (D.C.1983) (en banc); Platt v. District of Columbia, 467 A.2d 149 (D.C.1983); Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C.1981) (en banc)).

The purpose of the public duty doctrine is to shield the District and its employees from liability associated with providing "public services." Hines v. District of Columbia, supra, 580 A.2d at 136. As applied by the court, it has operated to bar lawsuits by a person seeking, as an individual, to enforce the duties to prevent crime and otherwise protect against injury in the absence of a special relationship which imposes a special legal duty. Morgan v. District of Columbia, supra, 468 A.2d at 1311 (police services); Warren v. District of Columbia, supra, 444 A.2d at 2-3 (same); see also Hines v. District of Columbia, supra, 580 A.2d at 136 (ambulance services); Platt v. District of Columbia, supra, 467 A.2d at 150 (building permits).

Originally, the sovereign immunity doctrine shielded state and local governments from all tort liability under the common law maxim: "the king can do no wrong." Note, Municipal Liability for Negligent Inspection, 23 LOY.L.REV. 458, 459-460 (1977) (quoting Russell v. The Men Dwelling in the County of Devon, 100 Eng.Rep. 359 (K.B. 1788)) hereinafter Note, Municipal Liability. Realizing that the doctrine of sovereign immunity often led to unfair results, many jurisdictions either abolished the doctrine altogether, id. at 460 n. 14 (citing WASH.REV.CODE ANN. § 4.96.010 (West 1967)), or limited its applicability. See D.C.Code §§ 1-1201 et seq. (1987 Repl.);2 see also, PROSSER AND KEATON ON

602 A.2d 1126
TORTS § 131, at 1044-1045, 1049 & 1052 (5th ed. 1984) hereinafter PROSSER

A number of jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, now limit the circumstances under which governments can be sued by adopting one or more of three alternative approaches to avoiding liability. Note, Municipal Liability, supra, at 460, 463, 467; 57 AM.JUR.2D Municipal, County, School, and State Tort Liability §§ 104-144. All three approaches have existed at one time or another in the District of Columbia. Two of them continue the sovereign immunity doctrine's jurisdictional bar to bringing suit, but limit its applicability by dividing governmental activities into two categories: (1) governmental (immunity) and proprietary (no immunity) or (2) discretionary (immunity) and ministerial (no immunity). See generally Spencer v. General Hospital, 138 U.S.App.D.C. 48, 425 F.2d 479 (1969) (en banc). The third approach is the public duty doctrine, which focuses on "whether the municipality owes a duty to the injured person." Note, Municipal Liability, supra, at 467; see 57 AM.JUR.2D Municipal, County, School, and State Tort Liability § 139.

Initially, the courts in the District of Columbia applied the governmental/proprietary distinction in determining when sovereign immunity would bar a suit against the District, but gradually abandoned this in favor of the discretionary/ministerial approach. See Spencer v. General Hospital, supra, 138 U.S.App. D.C. at 52, 425 F.2d at 483, and cases cited therein.3 It is now "settled that a District officer, and the District when sued for the acts of an officer under the theory of respondeat superior, are protected by sovereign immunity if the officer's acts are `discretionary,' but subject to liability if the acts were `ministerial' in character." Rieser v. District of Columbia, 183 U.S.App. D.C. 375, 388, 563 F.2d 462, 475 (1977); accord District of Columbia v. North Wash. Neighbors, 367 A.2d 143, 148 (D.C. 1976) (en banc) (noting that this distinction was influenced by similar distinctions under the Federal Tort Claims Act) (citing Wade v. District of Columbia, 310 A.2d 857, 860-61 (D.C.1973).

This court has adopted the public duty doctrine to limit the District's liability in negligence cases where sovereign immunity is not a bar to suit. This approach

602 A.2d 1127
originated from a principle of negligence which states that
A duty may be general, and owing to everybody, or it may be particular, and owing to a single person only by reason of his peculiar position. Instances of the latter sort * * * include the duty of every person to so conduct his business as to avoid exposing others to injury. But a duty owing to everybody can never become the foundation of an action until some individual is placed in a position which gives him particular occasion to insist upon its performance; it then becomes a duty to him personally.

Orzechowski v. State, 485 A.2d 545, 549 n. 3 (R.I.1984) (quoting 3 COOLEY, LAW OF TORTS § 478 at 366 (4th ed. 1932)); see also Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C.Super.Ct.1978) (Appended to Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1, 8 (D.C.1981)) (rebutting criticism of the tort principle that a duty owed to everyone implies a duty owed to no one).

From this general principle, Professor Cooley formulated the following rule for determining when a public official owes a duty:

If the duty which the official authority imposes upon an officer is a duty to the public, a failure to perform it, or an inadequate or erroneous performance, must be a public, not an individual injury, and must be redressed, if at all, in some form of public prosecution. On the other hand, if the duty is a duty to an individual, then a neglect to perform it, or to perform it properly, is an individual wrong, and may support an individual action for damages. "The failure of a public officer to perform a public duty can constitute an individual wrong only when some person can show that in the public duty was involved also a duty to himself as an individual, and that he has suffered a special and peculiar injury by reason of its nonperformance."

Warren v. District of Columbia, supra, 444 A.2d at 9 (citing 2 COOLEY, LAW OF TORTS § 300, at 385-86 (4th ed. 1932) (citation and footnotes omitted)) (Kelly, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part).

Thus, as with the governmental/proprietary and the discretionary/ministerial approaches to defining the scope of the District's immunity, the public duty doctrine also establishes a dichotomy for determining whether a claimant may sue the District. The public duty doctrine, however, is not based on sovereign immunity considerations, but rather on whether, even if the acts involved are ministerial in nature, an actionable duty exists. Rieser v. District of Columbia, supra, 183 U.S.App.D.C. at 390, 563 F.2d at 477. The District is subject to liability for injuries arising from the negligence of its employees only if the duty owed to the plaintiff was a special duty to that person as an individual or as a member of a class of persons to whom a special duty is owed; the District cannot be sued if the duty it owed was a general duty to the public-at-large.4 Klahr v. District of Columbia, 576 A.2d 718, 719 (D.C.1990) ("Under the public duty doctrine, a person seeking to hold the District of Columbia liable for negligence must allege and prove that the District owed a special duty to the injured party, greater than or different from any duty which it owed to the general public."). Since the individual employee cannot be held personally liable for his or her duties to the general public, neither can the municipality under a respondeat superior theory since the employer is entitled to its

602 A.2d 1128
employee's defenses.5 Modlin v. City of Miami Beach, 201 So.2d 70 (Fla.1967)

Although the court has not described all of the circumstances under which the public duty doctrine applies, the court has defined it...

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58 practice notes
  • Zagami v. HP Enter. Servs., LLC, Civil Action No. 15-1638 (RMC)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 15, 2016
    ...that individual [to 212 F.Supp.3d 236whom a duty was owed] was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant." Powell v. District of Columbia, 602 A.2d 1123, 1133 (D.C.1992) (citations omitted).645 A.2d at 1098. Therefore, even assuming that HBC shared part of the Navy's duty to protect invitees ......
  • Allen v. Dist. of Columbia, No. 10–CV–1425.
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • September 25, 2014
    ...contact was different from the type of contact that the District has with the general public” (citing Powell v. District of Columbia, 602 A.2d 1123, 1130 (D.C.1992) )). If the District had effectively made a promise to protect Allen, that promise would have applied equally to the more than ......
  • Hawkins v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., Civil Action No. 17–1982 (DLF)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Columbia
    • April 27, 2018
    ...by the defendant, and (3) an injury to the plaintiff (4) proximately caused by the defendant's breach." Powell v. District of Columbia , 602 A.2d 1123, 1133 (D.C. 1992). In their purported gross negligence count, the plaintiffs allege that the "defendant drove a police van into a crowd of c......
  • Wells v. Hense, Civil Action No. 1:16–cv–0901–ESH
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • January 24, 2017
    ...by the defendant, and (3) an injury to the plaintiff (4) proximately caused by the defendant's breach." Powell v. District of Columbia , 602 A.2d 1123, 1133 (D.C. 1992). Although "[t]he [common] law of the District of Columbia does not recognize degrees of negligence," Warner v. Capital Tra......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
58 cases
  • Zagami v. HP Enter. Servs., LLC, Civil Action No. 15-1638 (RMC)
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • September 15, 2016
    ...that individual [to 212 F.Supp.3d 236whom a duty was owed] was reasonably foreseeable to the defendant." Powell v. District of Columbia, 602 A.2d 1123, 1133 (D.C.1992) (citations omitted).645 A.2d at 1098. Therefore, even assuming that HBC shared part of the Navy's duty to protect invitees ......
  • Allen v. Dist. of Columbia, No. 10–CV–1425.
    • United States
    • District of Columbia Court of Appeals of Columbia District
    • September 25, 2014
    ...contact was different from the type of contact that the District has with the general public” (citing Powell v. District of Columbia, 602 A.2d 1123, 1130 (D.C.1992) )). If the District had effectively made a promise to protect Allen, that promise would have applied equally to the more than ......
  • Hawkins v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., Civil Action No. 17–1982 (DLF)
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Columbia
    • April 27, 2018
    ...by the defendant, and (3) an injury to the plaintiff (4) proximately caused by the defendant's breach." Powell v. District of Columbia , 602 A.2d 1123, 1133 (D.C. 1992). In their purported gross negligence count, the plaintiffs allege that the "defendant drove a police van into a crowd of c......
  • Wells v. Hense, Civil Action No. 1:16–cv–0901–ESH
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. United States District Court (Columbia)
    • January 24, 2017
    ...by the defendant, and (3) an injury to the plaintiff (4) proximately caused by the defendant's breach." Powell v. District of Columbia , 602 A.2d 1123, 1133 (D.C. 1992). Although "[t]he [common] law of the District of Columbia does not recognize degrees of negligence," Warner v. Capital Tra......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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