Taylor v. Stevens County

Decision Date15 July 1988
Docket NumberNo. 53817-4,53817-4
PartiesHarry TAYLOR, et al., Petitioners, v. STEVENS COUNTY, et al., Respondents, American Pacific Realty, Inc., et al., Petitioners.
CourtWashington Supreme Court
Lukins & Annis, P.S., Terence Whitten, Erika Balazs, Spokane, for petitioners

Winston & Cashatt, Frederick Dullanty, Spokane, for respondents.

Kenneth Eikenberry, Atty. Gen., Gordon Crandall, Asst., Dept. of Corrections, Olympia, amicus curiae for City of Seattle.

DORE, Justice.

We hold that Stevens County cannot be held liable for its alleged negligence in administering its building code. The duty to ensure that buildings comply with county and municipal building codes rests with individual builders, developers and permit applicants, not local government.


Plaintiffs Harry and Robin Taylor in 1981 purchased a house in Stevens County from Harry and Mary Murray with the assistance of realtor American Pacific Realty, Inc. The buyers claim that the sellers built the house without first obtaining a building permit. They claim that before the sale was completed they inquired and were assured by the realtor that a building permit would be obtained prior to closing.

On November 30, 1981, the sellers submitted a building permit application to Stevens County which indicated that the house was "unfinished". The realtor alleges that it prepared the building permit for the sellers. Before issuing a building permit, a county building inspector entered the following notation:

The basic structure appeared to be of adequate construction although cosmetic considerations were somewhat lacking. Overall the bldg appeared to be average of what may be expected in this area.

Clerk's Papers, at 84. The County then issued a building permit on December 7, 1981.

On December 8, 1981, the buyers and the sellers entered into an "Executory Contract of Sale of Real Estate". The sales agreement noted that the house was not fully completed and the buyers acknowledged that they had examined the premises and accepted it "as is". By 1983, the buyers had discovered defects in the construction of their The buyers brought this action against the sellers, the realtor and the County. The sellers and the realtor cross claimed against the County seeking indemnity should they be found liable to the buyers. On CR 12(b)(6) motions, the trial court dismissed the buyers' claim and the sellers' and the realtor's cross claims against the County. The Court of Appeals affirmed, Taylor v. Stevens Cy., 47 Wash.App. 134, 142, 732 P.2d 517 (1987), whereafter we granted the buyers' and the realtor's petitions for discretionary review. We affirm.

                house.   At the buyers' request for inspection, a county building inspector found numerous violations of the county building code

In 1974, the Legislature enacted the State Building Code Act, codified at RCW 19.27. Laws of 1974, 1st Ex.Sess., ch. 96, § 1, p. 212. The Act adopted by reference several nationally recognized uniform codes, including the Uniform Building Code. See RCW 19.27.031(1). The Act requires counties to adopt the enumerated codes, however, a county may amend the codes provided certain minimum performance standards and objectives are not diminished. See RCW 19.27.031 and .060(1).

In March 1980, Stevens County enacted ordinance 01-1980 adopting, with amendments, the 1979 edition of the Uniform Building Code. Under the Stevens County building code, a building permit is required before beginning construction of a house. Uniform Building Code § 301(a) (1979). It further provides that the permit application shall include plans, diagrams, computations and specifications of the proposed work. Uniform Building Code § 302(a)(4) and (b).

As to the issuance of building permits, the code provides:

No building permit shall be issued to any applicant or person who fails to provide sufficient evidence of compliance with all laws and regulations relating to the use of Clerk's Papers, at 88; Stevens County Building Construction Code § 303(H). Where construction has commenced without first obtaining a building permit, a "special investigation" is required before a permit may be issued for such work. Clerk's Papers, at 89; Stevens County Building Construction Code § 304(E).

land and the construction or improvements of structures thereon.


In essence, the buyers and the realtor claim that the County was negligent for having issued the building permit because consummated plans, required by the county building code, did not accompany the permit application. They further allege that the County negligently performed the "special investigation" in that the inspector failed to discover that the house had not been built in compliance with the building code. The County denies liability, claiming that under the "public duty doctrine" it owed no duty to the buyers or the realtor.

The threshold determination in a negligence action is whether a duty of care is owed by the defendant to the plaintiff. Whether the defendant is a governmental entity or a private person, to be actionable, the duty must be one owed to the injured plaintiff, and not one owed to the public in general. J & B Dev. Co. v. King Cy., 100 Wash.2d 299, 304, 669 P.2d 468, 41 A.L.R.4th 86 (1983). This basic principle of negligence law is expressed in the "public duty doctrine". Under the public duty doctrine, no liability may be imposed for a public official's negligent conduct unless it is shown that "the duty breached was owed to the injured person as an individual and was not merely the breach of an obligation owed to the public in general (i.e., a duty to all is a duty to no one)." J & B Dev. Co., at 303, 669 P.2d 468, Chambers-Castanes v. King Cy., 100 Wash.2d 275, 284, 669 P.2d 451, 39 A.L.R.4th 671 (1983); 18 E. McQuillin, Municipal Corporations § 53.04b (3d ed. 1984).


The public duty rule of nonliability does not apply where the Legislature enacts legislation for the protection of persons of the plaintiff's class. In Halvorson v. Dahl, 89 Wash.2d 673, 676, 574 P.2d 1190 (1978) we stated that "[l]iability can be founded upon a municipal code if that code by its terms evidences a clear intent to identify and protect a particular and circumscribed class of persons." See Baerlein v. State, 92 Wash.2d 229, 231-32, 595 P.2d 930 (1979); see also 1A C. Antieau, Municipal Corporation § 11.32 (1987).

The purpose section of the State Building Code Act, RCW 19.27, in pertinent part provided:

The purpose of this chapter is to provide building codes throughout the state. This chapter is designed to effectuate the following purposes, objectives and standards:

(1) To promote the health, safety and welfare of the occupants or users of buildings and structures and the general public.

(Italics ours.) Laws of 1974, 1st Ex.Sess., ch. 96, § 2, p. 212 (former RCW 19.27.020). The buyers contend that the clear intent of the statute is to protect them individually.

This court and the Court of Appeals has on numerous occasions rejected the contention that building codes impose a duty upon local governments to enforce the provisions of such codes for the benefit of individuals. E.g., Halvorson, 89 Wash.2d at 676, 574 P.2d 1190; Rosen v. Tacoma, 24 Wash.App. 735, 740-41, 603 P.2d 846 (1979); Georges v. Tudor, 16 Wash.App. 407, 409-10, 556 P.2d 564 (1976); see also Haslund v. Seattle, 86 Wash.2d 607, 611 n. 2, 547 P.2d 1221 (1976). These cases recognize that building codes, the issuance of building permits and building inspections are devices used to secure to local government the consistent compliance with zoning and other land use regulations and code provisions governing the design and structure of buildings. See Haslund, at 611 n. 2, 547 P.2d 1221; Georges, 16 Wash.App. at 409, 556 P.2d 564; 9A E. McQuillin, Municipal Corporations § 26.200 and 26.200.05. As such, the duty to issue The buyers argue that under Halvorson the public duty rule does not apply to them because of their status as "occupants" of the house. In Halvorson, we acknowledged the traditional rule that a local government is under no duty, ascertainable in tort, to ensure compliance with its building code. We held, however, that the City of Seattle could be liable for failure to enforce the Seattle Housing Code because the code, in its declaration of purpose, evidenced the "clear intent" to protect building occupants. Halvorson, 89 Wash.2d at 676, 574 P.2d 1190. That purpose was to identify "conditions and circumstances [which] are dangerous and a menace to the health, safety, morals or welfare of the occupants of such buildings and of the public, ..." Halvorson, at 677 n. 1, 574 P.2d 1190.

                building permits and conduct inspections is to protect the health and safety of the general public.   Accordingly, we continue to adhere to the traditional public duty rule that building codes impose duties that are owed to the public at large

The "clear intent" to protect occupants found in Halvorson is not present here. The purpose section of the Seattle Housing Code focuses on substandard housing that is unfit for human habitation. The primary purpose of the Seattle Housing Code is necessarily more focused on the public health and safety of occupants of substandard buildings. On the other hand, the purpose of the State Building Code Act is much broader. While the Act promotes the welfare of occupants, its primary purpose is to require that minimum performance standards and requirements for building and construction materials be applied consistently throughout the state.

Additionally, Halvorson requires that an injured plaintiff show "culpable neglect regarding, or indifference to" violations of the building code. Halvorson, at 678, 574 P.2d 1190; see Hartley v. State, 103 Wash.2d 768, 783, 698 P.2d 77 (1985). The requirement was met in Halvorson with...

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