Public Duty Doctrine Shields Police Officers from Liability in Maryland Negligence Suit

To succeed in a Maryland negligence claim, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had an obligation, or duty, to act in a certain manner according to the law.  Generally, most people, businesses, and other entities have a duty to exercise reasonable care to avoid injury to another.  In a December 3, 2018 Maryland wrongful death case, however, the issue of duty was more complicated.

The defendants in the case were Maryland police officers who had responded to a report of domestic assault involving the plaintiffs’ mother and her fiancé.  The officers were outside of the house with the mother when her fiancé began firing gunshots at them from the upstairs window.  The plaintiffs’ mother died as a result of a gunshot wound to the head.

The plaintiffs brought a civil suit against the officers, seeking to hold them liable for their roles leading to the murder of the plaintiffs’ mother by her fiancé.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiffs for $850,000, finding that the officers were negligent in failing to prevent their mother’s death.  The defendants appealed, and the matter came before the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.

In a Maryland negligence claim, the plaintiffs must establish that (1) the defendant had a duty to protect the plaintiff from injury; (2) the defendant breached that duty; (3) the plaintiff suffered an injury or loss; and (4) the loss or injury proximately resulted from the defendant’s breach of duty.  The primary issue on appeal was whether the defendants owed a duty to the mother.

In a negligence lawsuit against police officers, Maryland courts apply the public duty doctrine.  The public duty doctrine provides that the duty owed by the police by virtue of their positions as officers is to protect the public, not specific individuals.  Therefore, absent a special relationship, police officers cannot be held liable for failing to protect an individual from an injury caused by another person.  A special relationship may be established by showing that the officers affirmatively acted to protect the specific victim, thereby inducing the victim’s reliance upon their protection.

As the appeals court acknowledged, proving the existence of a special relationship between the victim and the police officer is often difficult.  The court held that a special relationship did not arise simply because the defendants’ responded to the 911 call, as the public duty doctrine would be effectively abolished.  Nor did the court find that there was evidence that the defendants took affirmative acts to create a special relationship.  As such, the court reversed the judgment against the defendants, ruling that they were shielded by the public duty doctrine.

At Foran & Foran, P.A., our Maryland injury attorneys can represent plaintiffs who have suffered loss or damages due to the negligence of others.  We handle wrongful death and personal injury claims, as well as premises liability and medical negligence cases.  Set up an appointment with one of our attorneys by calling (301) 441-2022 or contacting us online.

More Blog Posts:

Maryland Court Rules for Plaintiff in Wrongful Death Appeal Regarding Venue, Maryland Personal Injury Blog, published April 25, 2017

Family of Maryland State Prisoner Wins Wrongful Death Case, Appeals Damages Cap, Maryland Personal Injury Blog, published May 20, 2018