In 2014, the City of Box Elder was required to take one of its water wells offline due to impermissible contaminates. Box Elder, having to provide water to its residents, installed powerful booster pumps to push the water to its residents. In February 2015, numerous waterlines within a mobile home park located in Box Elder broke. The owner of the mobile home park reported the breaks to the City. The City subsequently installed pressure reducing valves at the corners of the mobile home park, and no additional breaks were experienced.
The owner of the mobile home park subsequently brought suit against the City of Box Elder alleging the City had a duty to operate, control, and maintain its water system in a reasonable manner, and that the City breached that duty when it negligently increased the pressure in its waterlines without installing pressure reducing valves.
The Circuit Court dismissed the lawsuit against Box Elder on the grounds that the public duty rule precluded imposition of a duty upon the City because the mobile home park owner failed to establish the City owed him a special duty.
The public duty rule recognizes that government entities are generally determined to owe governmental duties only to the public, not individuals. Basically, the government cannot breach a duty to an individual unless there exists a special duty to that individual. Generally, the public duty rule is invoked in cases of law enforcement and public safety. It is a tool used by courts to ensure that governments are not saddled with greater liability than private actors as they conduct the people’s business.
On appeal, the South Dakota Supreme Court held that the public duty rule did not apply in this case. Supplying water to its residents does not involve law enforcement and is not in the nature of public safety. In addition, the public duty rule does not apply when a private person would be liable to the plaintiff for the acts that were committed by the government.
Since Box Elder provides water to its residents, it can be held liable for any damages to its residents’ property if it negligently maintains the water system. Although the Supreme Court held that the lawsuit can go forward, the owner of the mobile home park must still prove that the City was negligent. It is still to be determined if Box Elder was actually negligent.
For more on this case, you can read the entire opinion in Maher v. City of Box Elder, 2019 S.D. 15, located on the South Dakota Supreme Court’s website http://ujs.sd.gov/Supreme_Court/opinions.aspx