In a 4-3 decision, justices of the Montana Supreme Court remanded the case of Kent v. City of Columbia Falls to trial to be decided on its merits.
At its heart, this is a premises liability case. All other defendants aside from the local city government settled with plaintiff. Now, the primary question is whether the city is liable for negligent oversight of design and development of a subdivision where this tragic accident occurred. Initially, a trial court granted city’s motion for summary judgment on the public duty doctrine, which holds government entities can only be held liable for individual injuries when there was a breach of duty owed to the individual, rather than the public-at-large. It’s a tough hurdle because generally, the government owes a duty to the public, rather than individuals.
A number of states now refuse to recognize the public duty doctrine, but Alabama is not among them. The Kent case shows the tide may be turning within the courts.
According to court records, decedent was a 35-year-old adult male who died in June 2008 as a result of a head injury suffered days earlier after falling from a skateboard in a private subdivision. Our Montgomery injury lawyers note he left behind a child and pregnant wife.
Decedent’s widow sued the city, as well as a number of other entities, alleging negligence, premises liability, breach of professional duties and wrongful death in designing, developing and constructing the subdivision. All other parties except the city settled before trial.
Specific to the city, plaintiff widow alleged the grade and steepness of the path on which decedent was skating was 24 percent – far too steep by acceptable construction standards. She alleged this steepness caused the fall that resulted in the fatal head injury. The city, she asserted, failed to follow its own regulations.
Defendant city argued it assumed no duty of care simply by taking on supervisory authority over and involvement in the design of the subdivision because the public duty doctrine precluded the existence of any such duty.
District court agreed and granted summary judgment to defense. However, plaintiff just won her appeal before the state supreme court, which reversed and remanded for trial.
The city voluntarily undertook oversight of the trail system where the accident occurred by “approving” plans and actively participating in design and location when the subdivision was built. In so doing, plaintiff asserted, city had a duty to act with reasonable care in approving design and location of these trails. Plaintiff alleges city failed to meet applicable slope, clearance, sight-line, hazard barrier and signage requirements with this particular project, and thus created a number of unsafe conditions – many of which were not obvious to the victim.
The state supreme court found the special relationship exception rendered the public duty doctrine inapplicable here because the city’s involvement in developing this trail went beyond mere approval. In fact, the city and the city manager took an active role in deciding the layout and location of the trail, and in so doing, took on a role usually held by engineers, contractors and architects. Therefore, this wasn’t a uniquely governmental activity.
The case will now be heard by a trial court.
Call Allred & Allred P.C. at 334.396.9200 to speak with a Montgomery personal injury lawyer.
Kent v. City of Columbia Falls, May 19, 2015, Montana Supreme Court
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