October 22, 2019

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Public Duty Doctrine Continues to be Viable Defense in West Virginia

On November 20, 2015, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia concluded in that the “public duty doctrine” continues to exist in West Virginia.

The public duty doctrine provides that a governmental entity, such as a state or municipality, cannot be held liable for an officer’s breach of a duty owed to the public at large as opposed to a duty owed to a particular individual. For example, the duty to provide police protection applies to all citizens. As a result, a municipality or state cannot be liable for a police department’s failure to provide adequate police protection.

In this case, the City of Charles Town and the Jefferson County Commission were sued based on allegations that city and county law enforcement officers conspired to cover up a former law enforcement officer’s speeding and DUI and that officers completed a false report finding the petitioner, rather than the former law enforcement officer, at fault for an accident. The Circuit Court concluded that none of the individual officers’ actions were manifestly outside the scope of employment or official responsibilities; that there was no evidence that the actions were done maliciously, in bad faith, or willfully or wantonly; and that there was no evidence of a “special relationship” or promise between the petitioners and respondents that could give rise to a claim for breach of duty.

The Supreme Court of Appeals affirmed, stating that the Circuit Court correctly looked to the applicable statute, West Virginia Code § 29-12A-5(a)(5), as well as the Supreme Court of Appeals’ explanation of the doctrine at common law.

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