The Supreme Court of the State of Montana has dealt another blow to the ability of governmental entities to avoid liability for personal injuries. Governments will often invoke the “public duty doctrine” as an argument against being held liable for personal injuries occurring in public and even private locations. This doctrine provides immunity from suit on the basis that a governmental entity cannot be held liable for actions taken to provide a service to the general public.
In a case decided May 19, 2015, the Supreme Court of the State of Montana again found that a governmental body can be liable, in spite of the public duty doctrine, if liability could be found under other provisions of law. In the case, Kent v. City of Columbia Falls, a skateboarder was injured and subsequently died from a skateboarding accident in a housing subdivision. The victim’s widow filed suit against, among others, the City of Columbia Falls. The City had approved plans for and been actively involved in the design of bike and pedestrian paths in the subdivision.
The Flathead County District Court had ruled for the City, effectively dismissing Kent’s case, citing the public duty doctrine. Under that doctrine, a governmental entity can be liable only if its actions fulfilled a duty to an individual, as opposed to a duty to the general public. The court found that the city’s role in reviewing and approving plans for the housing subdivision’s construction did not create a duty to Kent’s widow. Ms. Kent appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
In December 2012, the Supreme Court had also decided a case in which it found that the public duty doctrine did not apply. In that case, involving a playground injury in Miles City, the Court said that government is not always entitled to immunity from a personal injury suit just because a public entity is the defendant. The Court pointed to the Montana Tort Claims Act, which actually provides for liability by governments. In Kent, the Court stated that the earlier case was to remind courts that if a government has a duty of reasonable care under other provisions of law, then the public duty doctrine does not apply.
If you or a loved one has suffered an injury that you believe is due to a failure on the part of a governmental body or official, call us. The law firm of Tipp & Buley has handled numerous personal injury cases across Western Montana. To schedule a confidential, one-on-one consultation to discuss your issue, visit our website online or call 406-389-4215.