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Legal Defense Fund Top 25: Case 23

Public duty doctrine
White v Beasley

453 Mich 308 (1996)

Issue: Public duty doctrine

Detroit Police Officer Keith Beasley was dispatched to Phoebe Obleton’s home after neighbors had contacted 911 regarding an apparent assault on Obleton by her husband. Beasley and another officer arrived, but did not enter the building and never talked with Obleton. Four hours later, Obleton’s husband called the police department to report that he had murdered his wife. Sheila White, the personal representative of Obleton’s estate, sued the city and various individuals, including Beasley.

The city was dismissed from the lawsuit on the basis of governmental immunity. White claimed that Beasley was grossly negligent when he responded to the telephone call requesting aid on behalf of Obleton. Beasley claimed that he was not liable on the basis of the public duty doctrine.

The public duty doctrine insulates officers from tort liability for the negligent failure to provide police protection unless an individual plaintiff establishes that a special relationship exists between the police officers and the individual. Generally that relationship requires that several elements need to exist including an assumption of an affirmative duty by the municipality (governmental body) to act in the assistance of the injured person and reliance by the injured person on the municipality’s action.

Why did the LDF get involved?
Historically, throughout the country, the public duty doctrine has been recognized as common law (judge-made law) in contrast to law enacted by a legislative body. Although other Michigan appellate courts had recognized the doctrine, the Michigan Supreme Court had not specifically recognized the public duty doctrine. The recognition of the doctrine was of extreme importance to local units of government.What action did the LDF take?
Filed a co-amicus brief with the Michigan Municipal League Liability and Property Pool with the Michigan Supreme Court

What was the outcome?
The Michigan Supreme Court concluded that the public duty doctrine remains valid in Michigan as applied to police officers. The Court also outlined the parameters of the special-relationship exception to the public duty doctrine as articulated by the New York Court of Appeals in Cuffy v City of New York, 505 NE2nd (1987).

Who prepared the amicus brief?
Julie McCann-O’Connor
(O’Connor, DeGrazia & Tamm, P.C.)
James I. DeGrazia
(O’Connor, DeGrazia & Tamm, P.C.)

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