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The Expansion of the District of Columbia’s Immunity Under the Public Policy Doctrine

October 31, 2014 By Mark A. Kohl

As interpreted in the District of Columbia, the Public Policy Doctrine shields the District and its employees from liability for actions taken in performance of a public service.  The basis for this protection against liability is that if a governmental agency undertakes to provide a service to the general public, claims for alleged negligence in the provision of those services could deplete the government’s resources to the point that the services could no longer be offered. 
In Allen v. District of Columbia, the Court of Appeals held this immunity extends to the District’s EMTs.  In Allen, an applicant to the District’s fire department began to experience signs of illness after completing a physical aptitude test.  The responding EMTs allegedly assessed his condition, assigned him a low priority level, and transported him to Greater Southeast Community Hospital where he allegedly waited for over an hour before being evaluated.  The applicant’s condition worsened and he was transferred to another hospital where he subsequently died.  Survival and wrongful death actions were filed against the District (the EMTs employer), both hospitals, and the healthcare providers who attended to the decedent.  The Superior Court granted the District’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the Public Policy Doctrine applied.
On appeal, the Plaintiffs relied on the “special relationship” exception to the Doctrine, which operates where there is direct contact between the injured party and the governmental agency and justifiable reliance by the injured party.  Specifically, the injured party must prove a relationship with the agency different than that of the general public and must change his actions in reliance upon the first responders.  The majority of the panel of the Court of Appeals rejected this argument, comparing the decedent to any general citizen calling 911 for emergency services.
The result reached by the Court of Appeals affects not only plaintiffs whose claims may be barred by the doctrine, but also co-defendants who otherwise may look to the District for contribution as a joint-tortfeasor.
If you are handling or involved in any case where the defense of immunity is raised by a governmental agency, the lawyers at DeCaro Doran can assist you in navigating the confusing waters of governmental immunity doctrines.