The state-created danger theory imposes liability on a governmental entity for acts committed by a private actor. It generally applies in situations where the state increases the risk of harm to an individual through the state’s affirmative acts. Although courts have considered the doctrine in Maryland accident cases, Maryland had not adopted the state-created danger theory as a basis for recovery for violations under the state’s constitution. In general, under Maryland law, a private party does not have a duty to control a third party’s conduct to prevent harm to another person. However, a private party may have a duty when there is a special relationship between the private party and the third party or between the private party and the injured person. Whether a special relationship exists is determined on a case-by-case basis.
A federal appeals court recently considered the doctrine in a case involving three family members who died in a fire after the fire department failed to go look for them. According to the court’s opinion, the woman was in her apartment with her son and her stepfather and called 911 when they saw their apartment building was on fire. An operator from the fire department told her to stay inside the apartment and that help was on the way. The firefighters drove to the wrong location, and when they did arrive at the scene, they were never told that the family was inside, and no one searched for them. The three family members remained inside and died from smoke inhalation. No one looked for them until days later, when the firefighters found their bodies inside the apartment.
The estates of three family members sued the city and two fire department employees. The estates claimed that the state-created danger doctrine applied because the dispatcher told them to close themselves in their room, assured them that firefighters were on their way, and then failed to communicate the family’s presence or location to the firefighters. The court explained that the doctrine requires that there be, 1.) a foreseeable and fairly direct harm, 2.) an action that shocks the conscience, 3.) a relationship with the state that makes the plaintiff a foreseeable victim, and 4.) an affirmative use of state authority that created a danger or made others more vulnerable. The court held that the doctrine was inapplicable because there was it was not an affirmative act and because the conduct did not “shock the conscience.” It held that the dispatcher did not act affirmatively because the dispatcher only failed to communicate the family’s location to the firefighters, and the operator’s failure to communicate the family’s location was not sufficient to “shock the conscience,” in part, because it was not an intentional act.
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