West Virginia Supreme Court Acknowledges Special Relationships with Public Officials Can Create a Duty to Act

dogIn West Virginia, the actions or inactions of public officials are often protected by the “public duty doctrine.” Under the public duty doctrine, the general services that public officials and agencies provide to their community do not create a legal duty to any specific member of that community. For example, while firemen owe a duty to fight fires to the general community, they do not owe that duty to any one specific individual, and thus, that individual cannot sue them for a failure to meet their duty. When a public official or agency violates a duty to the community at large, it does not create private liability for any specific member of that community. West Virginia law does, however, create an exception to the public duty doctrine – when a municipality or public official creates a special relationship with a member of the community, that can serve as the basis for a lawsuit. In a recent case before the Supreme Court of Appeals for West Virginia, the court considered whether a special relationship could save a lawsuit dismissed by the lower court.

In this West Virginia personal injury case, D.B. sued Monroe County and P.G., the dog warden of Monroe County, after her husband was killed by four pit bulls that lived in their neighborhood. According to D.B., P.G. had been warned by multiple neighbors on several occasions that these pit bulls were aggressive and disorderly, and they frequently ran unchained around the neighborhood, threatening everyone from grown adults to small children.  On one occasion prior to her husband’s death, D.B. called 9-1-1 to report the dogs, and, she alleges, P.G. responded to the call by visiting D.B.’s house and assuring her that the matter would be addressed.  After her husband was killed, D.B. sued the county and P.G. for wrongful death. D.B. acknowledged that P.G.’s duty as dog warden extended to the community at large and was protected by the public duty doctrine, but she argued that P.G. had created a special relationship with D.B. when she personally visited her and assured her that something would be done to resolve the problem. The trial court disagreed and granted summary judgment for P.G. and Monroe County. D.B. appealed.

On appeal, the Supreme Court of West Virginia confirmed that the creation of a special relationship creates an exception to the public duty doctrine. In West Virginia, a special relationship is created when there is:  (1) an assumption by the local government entity, through words or actions, of an affirmative duty to act on the part of the party who was injured; (2) knowledge by the local government agency or officer that inaction could lead to harm; (3) some form of direct contact between the individual or agency and the injured party; and (4) justifiable reliance by the injured party. Here, the Supreme Court held that there were genuine issues of material fact as to each of these issues.

Specifically, D.B. had presented evidence, although contested, that P.G. assumed a duty to act on D.B.’s behalf in order to stop the pit bulls from terrorizing the neighborhood because she agreed to take care of the problem for D.B. Although P.G. argued that this conversation never occurred, D.B. had presented sufficient evidence, when viewed in the light most favorable to her, to survive summary judgment. Additionally, given the numerous reports to the dog warden and the local government about how dangerous these pit bulls were, the Supreme Court also held that P.G. reasonably could have known that her inaction in dealing with the problem could cause harm. Third, there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether P.G. did have direct contact with D.B., as illustrated by their conflicting testimony about whether a meeting occurred. Finally, since D.B. relied on the assurances of P.G. that something would be done about the dogs, and she and her husband walked freely in the neighborhood based on those assurances, the Supreme Court also held that D.B. had provided sufficient evidence of justifiable reliance to survive summary judgment. Accordingly, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s grant of summary judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings on D.B.’s wrongful death claims.

When dealing with personal injury claims against public entities or officials, complicated issues of immunity and public duty can arise. As this case makes clear, one way to overcome the limitations placed on lawsuits against public officials is to assert a special relationship that creates a unique duty that was breached. At the Wolfe Law Firm, our West Virginia dog bite attorneys understand how West Virginia’s public duty doctrine applies to claims against government officials and agencies, and we can help you determine whether an exception such as a special relationship might apply. Located in Elkins, West Virginia, the firm represents clients in a wide range of injury, criminal defense, and bankruptcy matters. Call us at 1-877-637-5756 or contact us online for a free consultation.

Related blog posts:

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Can Wrongful Death Lawsuits Be Brought Against the Government For Discretionary Actions?