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02/14/92 VERDINA POWELL v. DISTRICT COLUMBIA

February 14, 1992

VERDINA POWELL, APPELLANT
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; (Hon. Evelyn E.C. Queen, Trial Judge)

Before Rogers, Chief Judge, Schwelb and Farrell, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rogers

Opinion for the Court by Chief Judge ROGERS.

Concurring opinion by Associate Judge SCHWELB at page 18.

ROGERS, Chief Judge: Appellant Verdina Powell seeks reversal of the judgment dismissing her lawsuit as barred by the public duty doctrine. We reverse, holding that the trial Judge erred by concluding that under the public duty doctrine the District of Columbia government could not be held liable in tort for the negligence of its employee in issuing the wrong automobile license tags and registration number for appellant's car since appellant sufficiently alleged a special duty as would bring her within the "special relationship" exception to the public duty doctrine.

I

Appellant purchased a 1984 Ford Escort in April 1986, registered the car in the District of Columbia, and received D.C. license tags bearing the number 131-772. Thereafter, on December 6, 1986, she was stopped by an Anne Arundel County, Maryland police officer and her car was impounded when a computer check, through the Washington Area Law Enforcement System (WALES), incorrectly indicated that appellant's registration number belonged to another individual. *fn1 Based on these events, appellant sued the District of Columbia government (District), alleging that it negligently issued her a registration certificate and license plates that had previously been issued to Ms. Althea Hinds, and negligently entered her registration information into the WALES system. The trial Judge granted the District's motion to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the suit was barred by the public duty doctrine.

II

Under the public duty doctrine:

[the District of Columbia] and its agents owe no duty to provide public services to particular citizens as individuals. Instead, absent some "special relationship" between the government and the individual, the District's duty is to provide public services to the public at large.

Hines v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 133, 136 (D.C. 1990) (citing Turner v. District of Columbia, 532 A.2d 662 (D.C. 1987); Morgan v. District of Columbia, 468 A.2d 1306 (D.C. 1983) (en banc); Platt v. District of Columbia, 467 A.2d 149 (D.C. 1983); Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (D.C. 1981) (en banc)).

The purpose of the public duty doctrine is to shield the District and its employees from liability associated with providing "public services." Hines v. District of Columbia, supra, 580 A.2d at 136. As applied by the court, it has berated to bar lawsuits by a person seeking, as an individual, to enforce the duties to prevent crime and otherwise protect against injury in the absence of a special relationship which imposes a special legal duty. Morgan v. District of Columbia, supra, 468 A.2d at 1311 (police services); Warren v. District of Columbia, supra, 444 A.2d at 2-3 (same); see also Hines v. District of Columbia, supra, 580 A.2d at 136 (ambulance services); Platt v District of Columbia, supra, 467 A.2d at 150 (building permits).

Originally, the sovereign immunity doctrine shielded state and local governments from all tort liability under the common law maxim: "the king can do no wrong." Note, Municipal Liability for Negligent Inspection, 23 LOY. L. REV. 458, 459-460 (1977) (quoting Russell v. The Men Dwelling in the County of Devon, 100 Eng. Rep. 359 (K.B. 1788)) [hereinafter Note, Municipal Liability]. Realizing that the doctrine of sovereign immunity often led to unfair results, many jurisdictions either abolished the doctrine altogether, id. at 460 n.14 (citing WASH. REV. CODE ANN. § 4.96.010 (West 1967)), or limited its applicability. See D.C. Code §§ 1-1101 et seq. (1987 Repl.); *fn2 see also, PROSSER AND KEATON ON TORTS § 131, at 1044-1045, 1049 & 1052 (5th ed. 1984) [hereinafter PROSSER].

A number of jurisdictions, including the District of Columbia, now limit the circumstances under which governments can be sued by adopting one or more of three alternative approaches to avoiding liability. Note, Municipal Liability, supra, at 460, 463, 467; 57 AM. JUR. 2D Municipal, County, School, and State Tort Liability §§ 104-144. All three approaches have existed at one time or another in the District of Columbia. Two of them continue the sovereign immunity doctrine's jurisdictional bar to bringing suit, but limit its applicability by dividing governmental activities into two categories: (1) governmental (immunity) and proprietary (no immunity) or (2) discretionary (immunity) and ministerial (no immunity). See generally Spencer v. General Hospital, 138 App. D.C. 48, 425 F.2d 479 (1969) (en banc). The third approach is the public duty doctrine, which focuses on "whether the municipality owes a duty to the injured person." Note, Municipal Liability, supra, at 467; see 57 AM. JUR. 2D Municipal, County, School, and State Tort Liability § 139.

Initially, the courts in the District of Columbia applied the governmental/proprietary distinction in determining when sovereign immunity would bar a suit against the District, but gradually abandoned this in favor of the discretionary/ministerial approach. See Spencer v. General Hospital, supra, 138 U.S. App. D.C. at 52, 425 F.2d at 483, and cases cited therein. *fn3 It is now "settled that a District officer, and the District when sued for the acts of an officer under the theory of respondeat superior, are protected by sovereign immunity if the officer's acts are 'discretionary,' but subject to liability if the acts were 'ministerial' in character." Rieser v. District of Columbia,, 138 App. D.C. 375, 563 F.2d 462, 475 (1977); accord District of Columbia v. North Wash. Neighbors, 367 A.2d 143, ...


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