In a recent case decided by a state appellate court, a 10-year-old boy was killed while riding as a passenger on a speedboat. While driving on a lake, the driver of the speedboat drove the speedboat between two warning buoys and hit a submerged pipe. The mother had taken her four children fishing on a lake with her boyfriend when the accident occurred. The boy’s mother settled claims against the boat’s driver and others, and then she sued the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The mother argued that the state was liable because it marked the pipe with buoys that were too far apart, the pipe’s placement violated state laws, the pipe was concealed, and the pipe posed a danger to individuals.
The state’s supreme court dismissed the case, finding that the public duty doctrine barred the mother’s claim. The court explained that the public duty doctrine means that if a duty is owed to the public in general, there can be no liability to an individual who is a member of the public. However, there may be a duty to an individual if a special relationship existed. In effect, the public duty rule acts to protect municipalities from liability arising from failing to adequately enforce laws and regulations.
Here, the court found that there was no special relationship between those on the lake that day and the Department of Natural Resources. Members of the public can use the lake at no cost and come and go as they please. There was a duty owed to the general public but not to individuals, and there was no special relationship between the state and recreational boaters. Thus, the claim was barred by the public duty doctrine.