Kent v. City of Columbia Falls

Kent v. City of Columbia Falls, 2015 MT 139 (May 19, 2015) (Cotter, J.; Cotter, J., concurring; Baker, J., dissenting) (4-3, rev’d)

Issue: Whether the district court properly applied the public duty doctrine in granting summary judgment to the city.

Short Answer: No.

Reversed and remanded

Facts: Casey Kent, 35, died June 14, 2008, from a head injury he suffered from a fall while skateboarding in a planned unit development (PUD) in Columbia Falls, Cedar Pointe Estates. His wife Sara sued the city of Columbia Falls and various other entities that designed, developed and constructed Cedar Pointe Estates. Sara alleged the path where Casey was skating was built at a 24% grade, and the steepness of this grade caused Casey’s fall and fatal head injury. Sara settled with all of the defendants except the city of Columbia Falls.

A PUD allows local governments and developers to design a subdivision that might not otherwise conform to zoning and subdivision regulations. Here, the developers proposed narrow streets without sidewalks, and in return, proposed multiple small paring lots and a trail system with a bike and walking path.

The city conditionally approved the preliminary plat for Cedar Pointe in 2003, and imposed 28 conditions, one of which involved the bike and walking path. It instructed that the trail system be widened and extended in specific locations, and required the city manager to approve the design and location prior to construction.

The city approved two more ordinances amending Cedar Pointe and imposing specific conditions regarding the bike and walking path. City officials made numerous on-site inspections during construction of the trail system, and several times notified engineers and contractors that failure to comply with the city’s instructions could result in the city’s rejection of the project. On Dec. 21, 2007, the city director of public works indicated that final inspection of all infrastructure items had been completed and approved, except for a short list of items not related to the trail system.

On June 2, 2008, Casey Kent was skateboarding on the walking path. At the bottom of a 24% decline in the path, Casey fell, hit his head, and lost consciousness. He died 12 days later.

Sara filed suit in June 2011. In February 2012, the city moved for summary judgment, disputing premises liability and arguing it had no duty because of the public duty doctrine. Defendant APEC engineers and Sara opposed the motion. APEC argued an exception to the public duty doctrine, while Sara asserted the doctrine was unnecessary because the city created a nondelegable duty for itself, and also voluntarily undertook oversight of the trail system based upon its self-imposed obligation to approve it as well as its active participation in the design and location of the trail.

After a hearing in November 2012, the district court granted the city’s motion on all counts except willful or wanton misconduct and wrongful death. In December 2012, this Court issued its decision in Gatlin-Johnson, 2012 MT 302, which addressed the public duty doctrine as it pertains to a municipal park.

Procedural Posture & Holding: In April 2013, the city moved for summary judgment on the remaining counts. Sara opposed the motion, and in light of Gatlin-Johnson­, moved for reconsideration of the earlier summary judgment ruling. The district court granted the city’s motion, determined Gatlin-Johnson was not dispositive, and denied Sara’s motion for reconsideration. Sara appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses. 

Reasoning: Under the public duty doctrine, when a municipality owes a duty to the general public, that duty is not owed to any particular individual. Examples include law enforcement and fire protection. An exception arises when a special relationship exists between the city and the plaintiff, giving rise to a more particular duty than the one owed to the general public at large.

Sara argues the district court erred in applying the public duty doctrine without first determining whether the city’s statutes and its voluntary control of the project were sufficient to support her tort claims. The city responds that Sara’s claims are actually assertions that the first and second exceptions to the public duty doctrine apply, and that the district court properly analyzed them under that doctrine.

The district court relied on Prosser, which has some similarities to this case – but no one there argued the public duty doctrine did not apply. Instead, plaintiffs argued the special relationship exception applied, which the court affirmed it did not. Additionally, the city in Prosser was not actively involved in designing the project, and did not voluntarily undertake oversight of the construction.

Gatlin-Johnson is a reminder that “[i]f a private person would be liable to the plaintiff for the acts that were committed by the government, then the governmental entity would similarly be liable.” ¶ 39. Here, many of the city’s actions were similar to those typically undertaken by architects, contractors and engineers. This case therefore does not involve a uniquely governmental activity. Moreover, the evidence shows the city did not require the path to conform to ADA grade standards. Having undertaken an active role in designing the trail system, the city assumed a duty to act reasonably.

Justice Cotter’s Concurrence (joined by Justice Wheat): Justice Cotter writes “to suggest that it is time to reconsider and rein in the application of the public duty doctrine.” ¶ 54. “As the argument and citations contained in Justice Baker’s dissent underscore, the public duty doctrine has morphed from a doctrine born and intended to apply only to the actions and decisions of law enforcement, into one that is applied to a broad swath of governmental actions and omissions.” ¶ 63. Justice Cotter believes the Court has erred in reviving governmental tort immunity – which was abolished by the 1972 Constitution – via a judicially created theory, and “would welcome in a future case a thorough re-examination and review of the viability of the public duty doctrine.”

Justice Baker’s Dissent (joined by Justice Rice and Justice McKinnon): “In light of the differences between public and private action, unmitigated negligence liability has the capacity to expose governments to ceaseless litigation and interfere with government discretion about how best to use limited resources to benefit the public.” ¶ 64. “The public duty doctrine exists in recognition of these dangers and differences.” Id. Justice Baker notes that PUDs are a tool of land use regulation, which is exclusively a governmental function and exclusively a creature of statute.

Justice Baker contends the city owed a duty to the public at large in executing its authority under the land use regulations and statutes, and Kent has not identified a generally applicable principle of law that otherwise would impose a duty on the city. The next step would be to analyze whether any special relationship exceptions apply, but Kent has not argued any. Accordingly, Justice Baker would affirm.