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‘Public duty’ doctrine does not protect firefighters

A Fairfax Circuit Court says the “public duty” doctrine does not extend to firefighters, to protect them from a gross negligence lawsuit filed by the sons of a woman who died in a townhouse fire.

The suit filed by the sons of Debra Chiles alleges she died after calling the fire department and reporting that she was in the third-floor bathroom of her burning townhouse.

Under the “public duty” doctrine, if an individual officer breaches a duty owed to the public, the resulting injury must also be public for the officer to be sued for the act or omission. If a private party sues a public officer for an individual injury, the suit will survive only if there is some special duty the officer owes to the individual.

It’s true that other jurisdictions have extended the public duty doctrine to cases involving firefighters, said Fairfax Circuit Judge Robert J. Smith. But Smith said there is no basis in law to extend this reasoning in Virginia, as Virginia’s high court has limited application of the public duty doctrine to cases involving a duty to protect from the criminal behavior of a third party.

Whether the doctrine should include firefighters “is a decision that should be made by the General Assembly or the Supreme Court of Virginia – not this trial court,” Smith wrote in his Dec. 29 opinion in Chiles v. Dunn.

If the doctrine applied, Smith would have found a special duty existed in this case. The complaint alleged the firefighters either reached the third-floor bathroom but could not find Chiles, or found and abandoned her. Chiles’ body was discovered later in precisely the same place where defendants claimed to have looked, the complaint alleged.

Smith also said the plaintiffs stated claims for gross negligence. The court overruled the firefighters’ demurrers and said the case could go to the fact finder.
By Deborah Elkins

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