Washington D.C. Water Utility Sheds Negligence, Consumer Protection Claims in Lead-in-Water Litigation
In a decision that may have implications in other cases related to alleged lead in drinking water, a District of Columbia trial court dismissed negligence and consumer protection claims against the District’s water utility, DC Water. See Barkley v. D.C. Water & Sewer Auth., 2016 WL 184433 (D.C. Super. Ct. Jan. 13, 2016). Plaintiffs claimed injuries stemming from their alleged exposure to lead in drinking water in the early 2000s. DC Water successfully argued that the public duty doctrine – which bars negligence claims against government entities regarding services provided to the public at large – bars claims regarding drinking water distribution and related public education.
Under the District’s public duty doctrine, the District and its agencies “owe no duty to provide public services to particular citizens as individuals.” Id. at *3. “Stated another way, absent a special relationship between the District and an individual citizen creating a specific duty of care owed to that individual, the duty to all is a duty to no one.” Id. In granting summary judgment to DC Water on Plaintiffs’ negligence claims, the Court found that DC Water, created by the District’s legislative body, is part of the District government and is therefore entitled to the protection of the public duty doctrine. The Court noted that the public duty doctrine protects government funds from the drain of litigation costs and safeguards the separation of powers.
The Court also found that DC Water is not a “merchant” for purposes of the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act (“CPPA”). The Court wrote that “[DC Water] exists for a distinctly public purpose and that the fees [DC Water] charges are to maintain its solvency and to enable it to fulfill its statutory public purposes, not to turn a profit,” thus shielding DC Water from suit under the version of the CPPA in effect in the early 2000s. The Court also rejected Plaintiffs’ claims for personal injury damages under the CPPA, finding that remedies under the CPPA were limited to the limited relief prescribed by the statute.