In a recent blog post, I discussed the ability to bring a claim against the government and a limitation on the type of claim that can be brought. These are the concepts of sovereign immunity and the public duty doctrine. As luck would have it, the Court of Appeals issued an opinion dealing with these concepts on November 30, 2020.
In Perillo, a couple purchased a home not knowing it was uninhabitable due to methamphamine contamination—previous owners were well-known to law enforcement in Island County as frequent drug users on the property. The house had to be demolished and the Perillos brought suit, arguing that Island County Public Health negligently breached its duty to inspect for and make safe hazardous chemical contamination.
The trial court dismissed the case, concluding the County Health Department’s duty was a public duty. On appeal, the Court of Appeals disagreed, finding that it fit into an exception to the public duty doctrine. Relevant to the case, because there is a specific statutory duty for law enforcement to notify public health officials when property may be contaminated by methamphetamine, and because public health officials have a duty to inspect and decontaminate as necessary, the Court of Appeals felt it was the legislature’s intent.
Ultimately, as specific as this case seems, it is important in a broader context of civil justice and governmental accountability. The Court merely enforced the rule of law. The government is immune unless it consents to suit. Even though negligence claims can be brought against governmental entities, the claims cannot be based on a duty to the public at large. There is an exception to the public duty doctrine when the legislature imposes legal duties on a person or entity to protect a class of persons.
As it stands, this case will go back to the trial court for further proceedings. This case is a win for government accountability, and it provides a nice framework for the analysis about whether an exception to the public duty doctrine applies.