A Nebraska woman whose 10-year-old son died in a boating accident on Storm Lake in 2010 cannot sue the state of Iowa for damages, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled on Friday.
The Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled that Iowa’s public-duty doctrine protects government agencies and officers from damage lawsuits when acting in a capacity that benefits the general public.
Developed in the 1850s, the doctrine remains widely accepted as law. But courts in some states have rejected it in recent years, arguing against providing a higher level of protection against lawsuits for government agencies than is afforded individuals.
Courts in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New Mexico and North Dakota have tossed out or limited government protection under the doctrine. Courts in Connecticut, Tennessee and Utah have issued rulings maintaining it.
The Iowa case centers on a May 2010 accident in which Harry Foote was piloting a boat carrying his girlfriend, Jamie Laass, and four children on Storm Lake. He drove the boat between two hazard buoys at about 30 miles per hour and struck a dredge pipe submerged in the lake. The boat’s motor flipped into the boat striking Laass’ son, 10-year-old David McFarlin, who died later that day.
Laass of South Sioux City, Nebraska, sued the state of Iowa for negligence for failure to adequately warn boaters of a water hazard. A district court judge dismissed the case in July 2014 and Laass appealed. The Iowa Court of Appeals last year upheld the dismissal, and Laass asked the Supreme Court to review the case.
The Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Thomas Waterman explained that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources had regulatory oversight duties for dredging for the benefit of the public at large. Dredging a lake removes silt that accumulates at the bottom in order to improve water quality.
To the extent its duties included ensuring boaters’ safety, the DNR’s role was similar to that of a police officer or park ranger, Waterman said. Iowa courts have “consistently held that law enforcement personnel do not owe a particularized duty to protect individuals; rather, they owe a general duty to the public,” he said.
Three justices disagreed. In a dissenting opinion written by Justice Daryl Hecht, they said the Iowa Tort Claims Act passed by the Legislature in 1965 largely repealed former rules of governmental immunity. That change “put the state and private individuals on equal footing with respect to tort liability,” Hecht said, adding that the public-duty doctrine should be abandoned.
Hecht said the case should have gone to trial. Justices David Wiggins and Brent Appel agreed with him.
Attorneys for Laass did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.
“It’s certainly a tragic case, but given the legal facts we think the ruling is appropriate,” said Geoff Greenwood, a spokesman for the Iowa Attorney General’s office, which represented the state.
Laass filed two other lawsuits in connection with the accident. In September 2012 she received a $1.2 million settlement in a federal court case naming Foote, the dredge operator, the city of Storm Lake, Buena Vista County and Brunswick Corp., the boat manufacturer. A separate federal lawsuit against a marina at the lake was dismissed on grounds that the marina had no control over the lake.
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