from the Iowa District Court for Humboldt County, Kurt J.
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.
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.
Charles Lapierre and Ryland Deinert of Klass Law Firm,
L.L.P., Sioux City, for appellee.
E. Fenton of Law Offices of Joel E. Fenton, PLC, Des Moines,
and Jessica A. Zupp, Denison, for amicus curiae Iowa
Association of Justice.
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
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.
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
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
Facts and Procedural Background.
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.
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.
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.").
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.
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.
Standard of Review.
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)).
The Public-Duty Doctrine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Johnson argues that the public-duty doctrine does not apply
here for several reasons. We will now turn to these
The Public-Duty Doctrine and the Restatement (Third) of
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.
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 ...