Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Johnson v. Humboldt County

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 8, 2018

KAITLYN JOHNSON, Appellant,
v.
HUMBOLDT COUNTY, IOWA, Appellee.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Humboldt County, Kurt J. Stoebe, Judge.

         A passenger who was injured in a single-vehicle accident that occurred when the vehicle left a county highway, entered a ditch, and struck a concrete embankment appeals the district court's grant of summary judgment to the county. AFFIRMED.

          Conrad F. Meis of Buchanan, Bibler, Gabor, and Meis, Algona, and Michael K. Bush and John C. Bush of Bush, Motto, Creen, Koury & Halligan, P.L.C., Davenport, for appellant.

          Rene Charles Lapierre and Ryland Deinert of Klass Law Firm, L.L.P., Sioux City, for appellee.

          Joel E. Fenton of Law Offices of Joel E. Fenton, PLC, Des Moines, and Jessica A. Zupp, Denison, for amicus curiae Iowa Association of Justice.

          Thomas M. Boes and Catherine M. Lucas of Bradshaw, Fowler, Proctor & Fairgrave, P.C., Des Moines, for amici curiae Iowa League of Cities, Iowa Defense Counsel Association, Iowa State Association of County Supervisors, and Iowa Municipal Utilities Association.

          MANSFIELD, Justice.

         I. Introduction.

         This case involves a single-vehicle accident that occurred when a vehicle went off a county road and into a ditch, then struck a concrete embankment in the ditch. The embankment had been constructed by a private landowner. It was on the private landowner's land, although the county had a right-of-way easement where part of the embankment was located.

         A passenger in the vehicle sustained serious injuries. She sued the county and the current landowner seeking recovery. She alleged the county should have caused the removal of the concrete embankment from the ditch. The district court denied summary judgment to the landowner but granted it to the county based on the public-duty doctrine. The plaintiff appealed.

         On our review, we are guided by our recent decision in Estate of McFarlin v. State, 881 N.W.2d 51 (Iowa 2016). There we held that the public-duty doctrine barred a claim against the State of Iowa relating to the placement of and lack of warnings on a dredge pipe in a recreational lake owned and managed by the state. Id. at 58. A boater struck the dredge pipe, resulting in fatal injuries to one of the boat's passengers. Id. at 53. Estate of McFarlin reaffirmed our earlier public-duty precedents and also held that the doctrine remains good law under the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm. Id. at 60. Based on Estate of McFarlin, we affirm the district court's grant of summary judgment.

         II. Facts and Procedural Background.

         At approximately 2:30 a.m. on March 3, 2013, David Helmers and Kaitlyn Johnson, who at that time was Helmers's spouse, were traveling on a county road in Humboldt County in a Chevy Silverado pickup. Helmers was driving. He fell asleep at the wheel, and the vehicle crossed the other side of the road and then veered into a roadside ditch. Helmers never applied the brakes, and the vehicle continued in the ditch for over 200 feet before it struck a concrete embankment in the ditch. Johnson suffered serious injuries in the accident, including paralysis and brain damage. The car was traveling approximately 58 miles per hour when it hit the embankment.

         The embankment had been built by Donald Becker and his father-in-law in 1972. It was part of a cattle grid that allowed people and their vehicles, but not livestock, to cross the ditch at that spot. The embankment and the grid were entirely on the Beckers' private property, although most of the embankment fell within the county's right-of-way easement relating to the road.

         On December 31, 2014, Johnson filed suit against Humboldt County and the current landowners, Donald and Sandra Becker. Johnson alleged that the County was negligent in failing to cause the removal of the embankment. She relied on general negligence principles, premises liability, public nuisance, and Iowa Code sections 670.2 and 318.4. See Iowa Code § 670.2 (2013) ("Except as otherwise provided in this chapter, every municipality is subject to liability for its torts and those of its officers and employees, acting within the scope of their employment or duties . . . ."); id. § 318.4 ("The highway authority shall cause all obstructions in a highway right-of-way under its jurisdiction to be removed.").

         An initial summary judgment motion filed by the County was denied. Later, the County filed a second motion for summary judgment, specifically raising the public-duty doctrine.

         Following a hearing, the district court granted the County's second motion on September 23. The court reasoned that Johnson's claims against the County arising out of this incident were barred by the public-duty doctrine, which does not allow individuals to sue the government for breach of a duty owed to the public at large. As the court explained,

The Iowa Supreme Court has often found, consistent with the common law public duty doctrine, that a breach of duty owed to the public at large is not actionable unless the plaintiff can establish, based on the unique or particular facts of the case, a special relationship between the municipality and the injured plaintiff consistent with the rules of Restatement (Second) of Torts, Section 315. . . . Further, given the State's adoption of the Restatement (Third), the Iowa Supreme Court recently held 'the public-duty doctrine remains good law after our adoption of the Restatement (Third) of Torts.' Estate of McFarlin v. State, 881 N.W.2d 51, 60 (Iowa 2016). Therefore, the public duty doctrine remains good law in Iowa, despite the State's adoption of the Restatement (Third).
The pivotal issue in this case is whether the duty owed by Humboldt as the highway authority to remove obstructions in highway right-of-ways, a duty owed to the public at large, could also be construed as a duty to Johnson as a member of a special identifiable class. Based on a plain language reading of Section 318.4, it is clear that the statute does not identify Johnson as a member of a special protected class. Simply stated, Johnson did not have a common law special relationship with Humboldt that could support a finding of duty. . . .
Section 318.4 charges Humboldt with a duty to protect the general users of Iowa roadways from obstructions in the highway right-of-ways. Since the Iowa Supreme Court has clearly found motorists to be a general class that is not afforded a special relationship with the State, all of Johnson's allegations stemming from Humboldt's failure to perform its duties under Section 318.4 are not actionable. Therefore, Humboldt's Motion for Summary Judgment is granted.
Johnson appealed, and we retained the appeal.

         III. Standard of Review.

         "We review a district court's ruling on summary judgment for correction of errors at law." Estate of McFarlin, 881 N.W.2d at 56 (quoting Thomas v. Gavin, 838 N.W.2d 518, 521 (Iowa 2013)). "The evidence is viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." Id. (quoting Mueller v. Wellmark, Inc., 818 N.W.2d 244, 253 (Iowa 2012)).

         IV. Analysis.

         A. The Public-Duty Doctrine.

         "Under the public-duty doctrine, 'if a duty is owed to the public generally, there is no liability to an individual member of that group.' " Id. at 58 (quoting Kolbe v. State, 625 N.W.2d 721, 729 (Iowa 2001)). "[A] breach of duty owed to the public at large is not actionable unless the plaintiff can establish, based on the unique or particular facts of the case, a special relationship between the [governmental entity] and the injured plaintiff . . . ." Kolbe, 625 N.W.2d at 729. We have applied this doctrine on various occasions to preclude tort claims by individuals against the government.

         In Kolbe, we held that the doctrine precluded a negligence claim against the state for its issuance of a driver's license to a driver with a congenital visual impairment. Id. at 729-30. The driver struck a bicyclist, severely injuring him. Id. at 724. We rejected the bicyclist's assertion that the state owed him a duty as a member of a "particularized class-rightful users of the Iowa roads." Id. at 728, 729-30. We found instead that the licensing provisions in chapter 321 of the Iowa Code were for the benefit of the public at large and thus the plaintiff could not "avoid the preclusive effect of the public duty doctrine by claiming membership in a special, identifiable group for whose benefit the statutes were enacted." Id. at 729- 30.

         In Summy v. City of Des Moines, we again examined the public-duty doctrine, this time finding that it did not apply based on the facts of that case. 708 N.W.2d 333, 344 (Iowa 2006), overruled on other grounds by Alcala v. Marriott Int'l, Inc., 880 N.W.2d 699, 708 & n.3 (Iowa 2016). In Summy, a golfer who was golfing on a city-owned golf course was struck by an errant golf ball. Id. at 335. He challenged the design of the golf course, alleging there was an unreasonable danger that a golfer playing the eighteenth hole would be struck by tee shots from the first hole. Id. at 336. We held the public-duty doctrine did not apply because the duty at issue "was one owed to invitees on the golf course, not to the public at large." Id. at 344.

         In Raas v. State, we considered the public-duty doctrine in the context of claims brought by two individuals who were injured by inmates who had escaped from the Iowa Medical and Classification Center in Oakdale. 729 N.W.2d 444, 446 (Iowa 2007). One of the individuals was attacked while in the parking lot of the facility; the other while fishing in the Iowa River some distance away. Id. at 446. We found that the plaintiff who was "lawfully in the parking lot of the Oakdale Facility . . . that day during the regularly scheduled visiting hours" had status "as an invitee, " so the public-duty doctrine did not apply. Id. at 450. The other plaintiff's claim, however, was subject to the public-duty doctrine, as he was "only a member of the public at large." Id. We emphasized that the public-duty doctrine was "alive and well in Iowa." Id. at 449.

         Most recently, in Estate of McFarlin, we again reexamined and applied the doctrine. 881 N.W.2d at 64 (affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment based on the doctrine). We found that the plaintiffs' claims arising out of a boating accident in which a boat struck a submerged dredge pipe on a state-owned and state-managed lake were precluded by the doctrine. Id. at 53, 64. We found Kolbe rather than Summy to be the relevant precedent:

Golfers pay to use the Waveland Golf Course as business invitees. The city was both landowner and proprietor operating Waveland as a business for paying customers. Golfers proceed through the course in small groups, hole-by-hole in sequence. Members of the general public are not allowed to wander freely around Waveland while golfers are playing. By contrast, Storm Lake is open to the public free of charge. Boaters may traverse the lake freely and come and go as they please, like motorists using public roads. . . .
This case is more like Kolbe than Summy. In Kolbe, we applied the public-duty doctrine to affirm summary judgment for the state, dismissing tort claims alleging the department of transportation (DOT) negligently issued a drivers' license to a visually impaired driver . . . . Five days after Schulte's license was reissued, he was driving on a county road and struck a bicyclist, Charles Kolbe, inflicting severe injuries. Kolbe sued the State, alleging that it "negligently and without adequate investigation issued driving privileges" to Schulte despite knowledge of his impaired vision. Kolbe claimed Iowa Code chapter 321 created a particularized class-"rightful users of the Iowa roads." The district court granted the state's motion for summary judgment. In affirming the summary judgment on the public-duty doctrine, we held the requisite special relationship was lacking because "the licensing provisions in Iowa Code chapter 321, and more specifically Iowa Code section 321.177(7), are for the benefit of the public at large." We reach the same conclusion as to the DNR's role at Storm Lake. Boaters at Storm Lake, like motorists driving on Iowa roadways, are members of the general public, not a special class of "rightful users of the lake" for purposes of the public-duty doctrine.

Id. at 60-61 (footnote omitted) (citations omitted) (quoting Kolbe, 625 N.W.2d at 724-25, 728, 729). In short, boaters using a lake that is open to the public for recreational purposes would be considered members of the public at large, not a special class.

         In light of these precedents, the public-duty doctrine appears to control this case. Any duty to remove obstructions from the right-of-way corridor adjacent to the highway would be a duty owed to all users of this public road. It would thus be a public duty. See id. at 61-62; Kolbe, 625 N.W.2d at 728-30. Just as boaters on Storm Lake are members of the general public, so are persons who use the county road. See Estate of McFarlin, 881 N.W.2d at 61-62. Furthermore, Iowa Code section 318.4 does not alter the analysis. Johnson does not claim she has a private right of action under this law. Cf. id. at 58 (rejecting a private right of action under statutes relating to state-owned bodies of water and dredging); Kolbe, 625 N.W.2d at 727 (finding no private right of action under driver licensing statutes and regulations). Thus, section 318.4 would not affect the public-duty determination unless it was enacted for the benefit of a "particularized class." Cf. Kolbe, 625 N.W.2d at 728-29. Users of the public roads, however, are not such a class. Id. at 729-30.[1]

         Nevertheless, Johnson argues that the public-duty doctrine does not apply here for several reasons. We will now turn to these contentions.

         B. The Public-Duty Doctrine and the Restatement (Third) of Torts.

         Initially, Johnson argues that the public-duty doctrine did not survive our adoption of the Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liability for Physical and Emotional Harm. There are two problems with this argument: we have said otherwise, and the Restatement (Third) has said otherwise.

         In Estate of McFarlin, we specifically addressed whether the public-duty doctrine retains its previous vitality under the Restatement (Third). 881 N.W.2d at 59-60. We determined that "the public-duty doctrine remains good law after our ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.