What is the public duty doctrine? Up until about 1961, the State of Washington enjoyed what was called “Sovereign Immunity.” This meant that one simply could not sue the State (or a local government) no matter what wrong it had committed. While the immunity was taken away by the legislature, there were still significant barriers put in place under certain circumstances to be able to sue a governmental entity in Washington.

The public duty doctrine limits governmental immunity in that in order for the plaintiff to establish a cause of action the plaintiff must show that the duty breached by the government was one that was owed to an individual and not something that would be considered a general duty owed to the public. This concept was recently revisited and altered by the Washington Court of Appeals.

The Court has now stated that the public duty doctrine applies only when the duty at issue arises out of a statute of ordinance mandating action by the governmental entity. So if a governmental entity provides emergency services such as 911 or ambulance services, and does so as a service and not a statutory obligation (which would apply to things like policing), and if the entity then performs its obligations in a negligent manner causing someone harm, the governmental entity can be held liable in a lawsuit on those grounds.

See, Norg v. City of Seattle, Division One, Washington Court of Appeals, Case No. 80836-2-I.


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