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Public Duty Doctrine in Georgia

Posted in Personal Injury on November 4, 2020

The public duty doctrine in Georgia has come under increased scrutiny over the last few months as unrest related to police misconduct has brewed across the United States. Many people wonder whether or not a Georgia municipality can be held liable for failing to provide police protection to the public. This is a good question that can mostly be answered under the “public duty doctrine.”

What does the public duty doctrine say?

The public duty doctrine says that Georgia, or a municipality, cannot be held liable for a duty of police protection except under various special and defined circumstances. The public duty doctrine has a broad impact on claims in which police officers are alleged to have been negligent or failed to act to protect somebody, leading to injuries.

Under the public duty doctrine, a municipality does not have the duty to protect the public at large unless there has been a special relationship established between an individual and the municipality. The special relationship in these situations must set the individual apart from the public as a whole. In other words, an individual needs to be singled out by the police officer in order for a separate special duty to exist. If this special duty is created, a municipality may face a lawsuit for their police department’s nonfeasance or failure to perform an act as required by law.

In order for a special relationship to exist in these situations, there must be:

  1. An explicit assurance by the municipality that they will act on behalf of the injured party
  2. Municipality knowledge that failing to act could cause harm
  3. Reliance on the municipality’s affirmative actions by the injured party

To make this simpler by translating to layman’s terms, this basically means that a responding police officer must be actively involved with an individual’s situation and have knowledge that failing to act in a certain way could cause harm to the individual.

For an example of how this has been applied in Georgia, we can turn to the Supreme Court case Stevenson v. City of Doraville. This case arose when Kenyatta Stevenson alleged that a police officer failed to respond to a dangerous situation he was involved in. In this case, the plaintiff was driving on a rainy night when he experienced car trouble. As he tried to drive across multiple lanes of traffic from the far left to the far right shoulder, the car stalled in the middle of a lane of traffic.

The plaintiff noticed that there was a police car to his right with their emergency lights on. The police officer then turned on their emergency flashing lights, which the plaintiff interpreted as a signal that the police officer was going to help. The police vehicle moved to the right and slightly behind the plaintiff’s vehicle. The plaintiff subsequently turned on their own flashers and stayed inside the car, assuming the police officer would assist.

The police officer called the dispatcher and notified them that the plaintiff’s car created a hazard and asked for assistance because it was too dangerous for them (the officer) to cross traffic and help. The plaintiff left his car after a few minutes and tried to talk to the police officer. That is when another car, shifting lanes to avoid a tractor-trailer, struck the plaintiff’s car. The car then struck the plaintiff.

Stevenson ultimately sued the municipality and the police officer, alleging that the officer was negligent in failing to redirect traffic away from the stalled vehicle and for causing traffic to move in the direction of the stalled vehicle by activating their blue emergency lights. The municipality argued that they do not have a duty to protect the public at large unless there is a special relationship established between the individual and the municipality.

This case was appealed multiple times, but ultimately the Supreme Court of Georgia decided that the municipality would not be held responsible for the injuries to the plaintiff and the situation.

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