Inman v. City of Whiteville – Public Duty Doctrine Bars Crash Injury Claim

The North Carolina Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of a personal injury action brought against a municipality by a woman who alleged the city police department failed to properly investigate a crash, thereby depriving her of the ability to seek redress from the at-fault driver.
The primary reason the court was compelled to affirm dismissal was because of North Carolina’s Public Duty Doctrine. Our Asheville car accident attorneys know this principle holds that when a governmental entity owes a duty to the general public, individuals can’t enforce that duty in a tort.

With regard to police departments, it’s usually asserted as a breach by law enforcement officers of the duty to protect a person from a third-party criminal act, resulting in victim’s injury or death. Generally, these claims are rejected with two primary exceptions:

  • When a relationship exists between the police and injured party (i.e., a witness or informant who has aided law enforcement);
  • When police create a special duty by promising protection that is later not forthcoming, and the plaintiff’s reliance on that promise proximately results in injury.

The public duty doctrine is intended to acknowledge the limited resources of police agencies, and works to shield cities from an overwhelming potential for liability in this regard.

It’s previously been applied to crash cases, too. Lassiter v. Cohn, the court applied the doctrine to shield an officer accused of negligent management of a motor vehicle accident scene, resulting in additional injuries.

However, not all cases are decided in favor of the police, and the facts in Inman v. City of Whiteville were unique in that they alleged negligence on the grounds the officers, in the scope and course of their employment, failed in their obligation and duty to determine both the person responsible for the accident and the facts indicating his responsibility.

In September 2011, plaintiff was involved in a crash in Whiteville in which she was “run off the road” by another driver. She and her passenger suffered significant injuries as a result of this incident. The officer in question was called to the scene, and conducted an investigation. He interviewed the other motorist in question, but did not obtain his name, address, or any other information, and no identifying information was contained in the accident report.

When confronted, police later contended they didn’t have to obtain this information because no physical contact had occurred between the two vehicles. The plaintiff, in her lawsuit against the city, asserted the officer had a duty to collect this information, and that when he did not, it deprived her of the opportunity to seek damages from the other motorist.

However, plaintiff did not allege the applicability of either the special relationship exception or special duty exception, and therefore, her claim could not proceed.

For an individual in this situation, another option worth exploring would be uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage. In cases where the identity of the other driver is not known to the injured party (as is often the case in hit-and-run crashes), UIM coverage from one’s own insurer is the best chance an injured party has of recouping his or her losses.

Contact the North Carolina car accident lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Inman v. City of Whiteville, Sept. 16, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Williams v. GEICO – South Carolina Supreme Court Weighs Crash Case, Sept. 8, 2014, Asheville Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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