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Phyllis Woods v. District of Columbia

March 28, 2013

PHYLLIS WOODS, APPELLANT,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (CAM-9515-10) (Hon. Michael L. Rankin, Trial Judge)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mcleese, Associate Judge:

Argued October 12, 2012

Before OBERLY and MCLEESE, Associate Judges, and STEADMAN, Senior Judge.

Opinion for the court by Associate Judge MCLEESE.

Opinion by Associate Judge OBERLY, concurring in the judgment, at page 18.

Phyllis Woods sued the District of Columbia, claiming that her medical condition was aggravated because she relied on a negligent diagnosis by a District ambulance crew that provided her with emergency care. The trial court granted the District's motion to dismiss Ms. Woods's suit on the ground that, even if the District's actions were negligent, the District was shielded from liability by the public-duty doctrine, which precludes holding the District liable in negligence based on a duty to the general public, rather than on a duty arising out of a special relationship with the plaintiff. See generally, e.g., Wanzer v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 127, 131-32 (D.C. 1990). We affirm.

I.

For current purposes, the parties do not dispute the following facts. While visiting a friend, Ms. Woods became ill, with symptoms including slurred speech, loss of balance, and vomiting. In response to a 911 call, a District ambulance crew arrived at the friend's home to evaluate Ms. Woods. After examining Ms. Woods both inside the residence and outside in the ambulance, the ambulance personnel concluded that Ms. Woods had become ill because she had recently stopped smoking cigarettes. The District personnel advised Ms. Woods of their diagnosis and told her that it was not necessary to transport her to a hospital emergency room for further evaluation or treatment. After the ambulance crew departed, Ms. Woods remained at her friend's house overnight without seeking additional care. The next morning Ms. Woods became ill once again, and was transported to the hospital, where it was determined that Ms. Woods had suffered a "completed stroke" that morning.

Ms. Woods sued the District, alleging that her medical condition had been worsened by her reliance on an incorrect diagnosis provided to her by District personnel. Relying on the public-duty doctrine, the trial court granted the District's motion to dismiss Ms. Woods's suit.

II.

To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must set forth sufficient facts to establish the elements of a legally cognizable claim. Chamberlain v. American Honda Fin. Corp., 931 A.2d 1018, 1023 (D.C. 2007). This court reviews denovo an order granting a motion to dismiss. Id. at 1022. The court "accept[s] the allegations in the complaint as true and view[s] all facts and draw[s] all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff[]." Hillbroom v. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, 17 A.3d 566, 572 (D.C. 2011).

In general, "[t]he elements of a cause of action for negligence are a duty of care owed by the defendant to the plaintiff, a breach of that duty by the defendant, and damage to the interests of the plaintiff, proximately caused by the breach." Taylor v. District of Columbia, 776 A.2d 1208, 1214 (D.C. 2001) (internal quotation marks omitted). "With respect to the duty of care owed by the District in a case like the one before us, . . . a government and its agents owe no general duty to provide public services to particular citizens as individuals." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). "[A]bsent a special relationship between the [District] and an individual, no specific legal duty exists," and a suit against the District based on a claim of simple negligence will "fail[] as a matter of law." Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1, 3, 4 (D.C. 1981) (en banc). Accord, e.g., Klahr v. District of Columbia, 576 A.2d 718, 719 (D.C. 1990) ("Under the public duty doctrine, a person seeking to hold the District of Columbia liable for negligence must allege and prove that the District owed a special duty to the injured party, greater than or different from any duty which it owed to the general public.").*fn1

Although the District generally cannot be held liable in negligence for its failure to provide services to the general public, liability can arise if there is a "special relationship" between the District and the plaintiff. Warren, 444 A.2d at 4. This court has used somewhat varying formulations to describe the circumstances in which such a special relationship will arise. In Morgan v. District of Columbia, 468 A.2d 1306, 1314 (D.C. 1983) (en banc), for example, the court explained that a special relationship will arise if there is "(1) a specific undertaking to protect a particular individual, and (2) justifiable reliance by the plaintiff." In Snowder v. District of Columbia, 949 A.2d 590, 604 (D.C. 2008), the court described the first component of the special-relationship test in terms of a "direct contact or continuing contact between the victim and the governmental agency."*fn2

This court has indicated that justifiable reliance may be shown by establishing that "affirmative acts" by District employees "actually and directly worsen[ed] the [plaintiff‟s] condition." Johnson v. District of Columbia, 580 A.2d 140, 142-43 (D.C. 1990). See also id. at 143 ("a victim may arguably "rely‟ on an emergency crew not to worsen her condition"). As the court has cautioned, however, "that is not to say that even acts worsening the victim‟s condition are always sufficient to form a basis for liability." Id. at 143 n.4. In general, "[t]his court has adhered to a strict interpretation of the special relationship test, including the justifiable reliance prong." Taylor, 776 A.2d at 1218. See ...


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