The Estate of Farrell v. State, 20-1037

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtWATERMAN, JUSTICE.
PartiesTHE ESTATE OF SUSAN FARRELL, by its Administrator, Jesse Farrell, and as Representative for the Claims of JESSE FARRELL, Individually, JESSE FARRELL, as Next Friend of R.F., a Minor, MARGARET RENEE MASCHSKE, Individually, and STEPHEN MICHALSKI, Individually, Appellees, v. STATE OF IOWA, CITY OF WAUKEE, IOWA, and CITY OF WEST DES MOINES, IOWA, Appellants.
Docket Number20-1037
Decision Date13 May 2022

THE ESTATE OF SUSAN FARRELL, by its Administrator, Jesse Farrell, and as Representative for the Claims of JESSE FARRELL, Individually, JESSE FARRELL, as Next Friend of R.F., a Minor, MARGARET RENEE MASCHSKE, Individually, and STEPHEN MICHALSKI, Individually, Appellees,


No. 20-1037

Supreme Court of Iowa

May 13, 2022

Submitted March 23, 2022

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Polk County, Heather Lauber, Judge.

The plaintiffs seek further review of a court of appeals decision holding the public-duty doctrine barred their tort claims against the government defendants.


Robert M. Livingston (argued) and Kristopher K. Madsen of Stuart Tinley Law Firm, LLP, Council Bluffs, for appellants State of Iowa and City of West Des Moines, Iowa.

Apryl M. DeLange, Alex E. Grasso, and Jessica A. Eglseder of Hopkins & Huebner, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant City of Waukee, Iowa.

Stephen D. Marso (argued), Zachary J. Hermsen, Bryn E. Hazelwonder, and James E. Andersen of Whitfield & Eddy, P.L.C., Des Moines, for appellees.

Waterman, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Christensen, C.J., and Mansfield, McDonald, and Oxley, JJ., joined. Appel, J., filed a special concurrence. McDermott, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.



In this appeal, we must decide whether the public-duty doctrine bars tort claims against several government entities. A driver traveling the wrong way on Interstate 80 collided head-on with another vehicle at night, killing all the occupants. The plaintiffs sued the State of Iowa and two municipalities, alleging the defendants negligently designed, constructed, and operated a confusing interchange used by the errant driver. The defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, which the district court denied. We granted the defendants' application for interlocutory appeal and transferred the case to the court of appeals, which held the public-duty doctrine barred the tort claims. We granted the plaintiffs' application for further review.

On our review, we decline the plaintiffs' invitation to abolish the public-duty doctrine. Accepting the plaintiffs' factual allegations as true, we hold the pleadings state actionable tort claims alleging governmental misfeasance that created a dangerous condition on the government-owned highway interchange that contributed to the fatal accident. These claims survive a facial challenge. For the reasons explained below, we conclude the district court correctly denied the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings. We vacate the court of appeals decision and remand the case for further proceedings.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Because this case involves an appeal from the denial of a motion for judgment on the pleadings, "we assume the truth of the facts stated in the


pleadings." Griffioen v. Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Ry., 914 N.W.2d 273, 278 (Iowa 2018).

The City of Waukee and City of West Des Moines (Cities) began planning an interchange at Interstate 80 and Alice's Road in the early 1990s. "In 2005, the Cities contracted with the State via the Iowa Department of Transportation ("IDOT") for design and construction of the Interchange." The Cities and the State constructed "an Interstate 80 overpass at the site of the Interchange" from 2007 to 2010, and then hired several contractors to construct the interchange.

The Cities and the State chose a diverging diamond interchange (DDI) design for the interchange in January 2013, and construction of the DDI commenced in 2014. This interchange is the first DDI in Iowa. A DDI is unique because it "requires divers to drive on the left side of oncoming traffic for an extended period." And "[b]ecause of the unnatural feel of driving on the left side of oncoming traffic, drivers unfamiliar with the design experience confusion when entering the intersection of the DDI that causes them to move from the right-hand side to the left-hand side of the street." Moreover, "[t]his confusion makes safety features like road markings, lighting, and signage all the more important to the DDI design." The Cities, State, IDOT, and contractors received numerous complaints about the design.

The Cities and the State ordered the contractors to open the interchange "to traffic by the end of 2015." "[T]he Cities, the State, and IDOT opened the Interchange on December 1, 2015." When it initially opened to the public, the interchange "did not comply with contractual requirements . . . or with generally


recognized engineering and safety standards, criteria, and design theories." Safety features, such as lighting, road markings, and signage, were incomplete and were not maintained "in a safe and proper condition." "The Cities, the State, IDOT, [and contractors] continued working on, completing, and remedying these basic safety features and requirements into late 2016." However, "[t]he Interchange remained open to traffic [the] entire time."

In the predawn hours of March 26, 2016, before the safety features and requirements were completed, Benjamin Beary drove "on the interchange, took an incorrect right turn, and began traveling Westbound in the Eastbound lanes on Interstate 80." Two on-duty officers were transporting a prisoner in a police cruiser driving eastbound. Beary's vehicle "collided head-on into the police cruiser." All occupants died at the scene, including Officer Susan Farrell. This lawsuit is brought by her surviving husband, Jesse Farrell, daughter, R.F., and parents, Margaret Renee Maschske and Stephen Michalski (plaintiffs).

On March 21, 2018, the plaintiffs commenced this civil action alleging negligence, nuisance, and premises liability claims against West Des Moines and Waukee.[1] The plaintiffs alleged that the Cities are liable because of their role in opening the interchange prematurely and their failure to close the interchange after discovering dangerous conditions. The Cities filed separate answers, denying the allegations.


The plaintiffs then moved for leave to amend the petition to add the State of Iowa as a codefendant. The district court allowed the amendment. West Des Moines and the State filed a joint answer to the amended petition asserting the public-duty doctrine as an affirmative defense. Waukee's answer to the amended petition likewise asserted the public-duty doctrine as a defense.

The government defendants filed a joint motion for judgment on the pleadings under the public-duty doctrine on July 12, 2019. The plaintiffs resisted, arguing the public-duty doctrine does not apply because there was a special relationship between the governmental defendants and Officer Farrell, the governmental defendants committed affirmative acts of negligence (misfeasance), and the governmental defendants induced reliance on their ability to operate the interchange properly. Alternatively, the plaintiffs argued the public-duty doctrine should be discarded because the Iowa Tort Claims Act and the Iowa Municipal Tort Claims Act do not provide for it. All parties supplemented their briefs after our decision in Breese v. City of Burlington, 945 N.W.2d 12 (Iowa 2020).

On July 12, 2020, after a hearing, the district court denied the government defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings. The district court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that on-duty officer Farrell had a special relationship with the defendants that avoids the public-duty defense. But the court agreed with the plaintiffs that "the public duty doctrine does not apply to the affirmative, negligent actions of the governmental defendants." The court further concluded the plaintiffs' allegations of gross negligence "may satisfy the egregious conduct


exception to the public duty doctrine" as recognized by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The governmental defendants applied for interlocutory appeal, which we granted. We transferred the case to the court of appeals.

On appeal, the government defendants argued the public-duty doctrine requires dismissal because their duties were owed to the public at large without any special relationship with Officer Farrell, and the district court erred by applying the Rhode Island "egregious conduct exception." The defendants contended that the focus should be on the "instrumentality" causing injury-the Beary vehicle-and that any failure to protect Officer Farrell against that third-party driver constituted nonfeasance shielded under the public-duty doctrine, not actionable misfeasance.

The plaintiffs argued the public-duty doctrine should be overruled and, alternatively, that it is inapplicable to their claims. They contended the governmental defendants' actions constituted misfeasance creating a dangerous condition at the interchange they designed, built,...

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