Court Finds “Public Duty” Doctrine Applies, Preventing Government Liability in Boating Accident

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion discussing how the “public duty” doctrine can act to prevent a plaintiff from suing a government agency for alleged acts of negligence stemming from a breach of a duty owed to the general public. In the case, McFarlin v. State, the court determined that the state owed a general duty to maintain the lake where the accident occurred in a safe condition. Because there was no evidence that there was some additional duty owed to the plaintiff, the public duty doctrine prevented government liability.

The Facts of the Case

Ms. McFarlin’s young son was on a boat being operated by her boyfriend on a lake that was owned and operated by the state. Shortly after embarking, McFarlin’s boyfriend drove the boat near two “danger” buoys that were marking a shallow dredge pipe. The boat came too close to the pipe, struck it, and flipped over. As a result, McFarlin’s young son died.

McFarlin sued the state, alleging that it was negligent in the placement of the buoys, the placement of the pipe, and that the pipe was not adequately marked. The state took the position that it was not liable because it did not violate any duty owed to the plaintiff. Specifically, the state claimed that the duty to keep the lake safe was owed to the general public, and that there was nothing establishing that it owed the plaintiff a duty above and beyond that which was owed to the public. Because of that, the public duty doctrine prevented the state from being found liable.

The Public Duty Doctrine

In Maryland, like in the case discussed above, the public duty doctrine can shield a government from liability if the alleged duty that was breached was one owed to the public at large. This old common-law doctrine applies unless the plaintiff is able to show that there were some facts giving rise to an additional duty to the plaintiff.

McFarlin’s Argument

McFarlin argued that, while there was a duty to the public to keep the lake safe, there was a special duty owed to her because her son was actually out on the lake in a boat that day. The court declined to hold this created a “special” duty to McFarlin, explaining that she didn’t pay a fee to use the lake, and anyone in the public could have been in her position. The court likened the lake to a public road.

Have You Been Injured on Government Property?

If you or a loved one has recently been injured on government property in Maryland, Washington D.C. or the surrounding areas, you may be entitled to compensation through a personal injury lawsuit. However, as you can see from the case discussed above, there are many issues that can arise potentially thwarting a plaintiff’s attempts to receive compensation, including issues of immunity and applicability of the public duty doctrine. To make sure that you are fairly represented throughout the pre-trial and trial process, call 410-654-3600 to set up a free consultation with a dedicated personal injury attorney today.

More Blog Posts:

Court Finds Post-Mortem Misconduct Falls under Medical Malpractice Umbrella and Must Comply with Applicable Procedural Requirements, Maryland Accident Law Blog, June 1, 2016.

Court Finds Deceased Skateboarder Assumed the Risk of Injury, Preventing Family from Seeking Compensation, Maryland Accident Law Blog, June 15, 2016.

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