Public Duty Doctrine

By Daisy Rogozinsky
May 12, 2022

Individuals trying to hold a public officer legally liable for negligence that caused them to be injured may not be able to do so due to something called the public duty doctrine. In this article, we’ll define “public duty doctrine” and explain its relevance to personal injury cases.

Key Takeaways

  • The public duty doctrine states that a government entity cannot be held liable for injuries caused by a public officer’s breach of duty owed to the public rather than a specific individual
  • If you want to file a personal injury lawsuit against a government entity or their employee, the public duty doctrine may prevent them from being found at fault for your injuries 

What Is the Public Duty Doctrine?

The public duty doctrine is a legal principle that states that a government entity such as a city or state cannot be held legally liable for an individual’s injuries if they resulted from an employee’s breach of duty owed to the public as a whole as opposed to a particular individual. 

This comes from the idea that, in order to prove somebody negligent and hold them liable for an individual’s injuries, it must be established that the negligent party owed the injured individual a duty of care and failed to uphold that duty. 

In the case of a public officer, it is thought to be the case that they owe the general public a duty of care. However, this is not enough to satisfy the “duty of care” condition of negligence. Instead, they must be shown to have owed a duty of care to the specific individual that they injured. If this is not the case, then they cannot be found to have been at fault for the injured party’s losses.

Example of the Public Duty Doctrine

Let’s say that a police officer was called to a scene where an individual was throwing rocks at passersby from a rooftop. The police officer let the individual off with a warning and left the scene. Later, the rock thrower continued throwing rocks and injured a pedestrian. 

According to the public duty doctrine, the police officer could not be held liable for the pedestrian’s injuries because, although they owe the general public a duty to keep them safe, they did not owe that particular pedestrian a special duty to prevent them from being hit by rocks.

The Public Duty Doctrine in Personal Injury Law

Generally speaking, when you are injured because of the negligent actions of another party, you are eligible to seek compensation through a personal injury insurance claim and/or lawsuit. However, this may not be the case if the party you are trying to find liable is a public officer of a government entity. If that is the case, the public duty doctrine may prevent you from being able to prove their negligence and liability.

If you were the injured party in the above example, while you could not seek compensation from the police officer or the city, you would still be able to do so from the individual who threw the rock at you. 

If you were injured in a situation involving an employee of a government entity, it is highly recommended that you speak to an experienced personal injury attorney who will help you understand if you have the grounds for a case or if the public duty doctrine would apply to your situation.

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