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Bassett v. Lamantia

Supreme Court of Montana

May 8, 2018

ROBERT D. BASSETT, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
PAUL LAMANTIA; CITY OF BILLINGS, Defendants and Appellees.

          Argued and Submitted: November 29, 2017

          ORIGINAL PROCEEDING: Certified Question, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Cause No. DV 15-35045 Alex Kozinski and William A. Fletcher, Circuit Judges, and Frederic Block, Senior District Judge for the Eastern District of New York, sitting by designation

          For Appellant: R. Russell Plath (argued), Hayley Kemmick, Russ Plath Law, LLC, Billings, Montana

          For Appellees: Harlan B. Krogh (argued), Eric Edward Nord, Crist, Krogh & Nord, PLLC, Billings, Montana (for City of Billings)

          Brendon J. Rohan (argued), Poore, Roth & Robinson, P.C., Butte, Montana (for Paul Lamantia)

          For Amici Curiae: Justin P. Stalpes (argued), Beck, Amsden & Stalpes, PLLC, Bozeman, Montana (for MTLA)

          Marty Lambert, Gallatin County Attorney, Bozeman, Montana (for MCAA, MSPOA, MACOP, and MPPA)

          Todd Hammer, Tammy Wyatt-Shaw, Benjamin J. Hammer, Hammer, Quinn & Shaw, PLLC, Kalispell, Montana (for MLCT, IMLA and MACo)

          OPINION

          LAURIE MCKINNON JUSTICE.

         ¶1 The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit presented the following certified question to this Court on May 30, 2017: "Whether, under Montana law, the public duty doctrine shields a law enforcement officer from liability for negligence where the officer is the direct and sole cause of the harm suffered by the plaintiff?" We accepted the question on June 6, 2017, and held oral argument on November 29, 2017. We exercise our authority pursuant to M. R. App. P. 15(4) and reformulate the question as:

Under Montana law, when a plaintiff claims he was injured directly by an officer's affirmative acts, does the public-duty doctrine exclude all duties that may arise pursuant to generally applicable principles of negligence?

         ¶2 For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the answer to the reformulated question is no. Law-enforcement officers owe the public a general duty to preserve the peace and protect the public from harm inflicted by third persons or other independent sources. The public-duty doctrine recognizes that, because the duty to protect[1] is owed to the public generally, an officer does not have a legal duty to protect each individual plaintiff absent a special relationship. Accordingly, breach of that general duty is actionable only in the form of criminal prosecution or administrative disposition; it is not a proper basis for an individual plaintiff's negligence claim. However, independent of the duty to protect and based on generally applicable principles of negligence, an officer may owe a legal duty to a person injured directly by the officer's affirmative actions. The public-duty doctrine only applies to an officer's duty to protect the general public, and therefore does not apply to exclude the legal duty an officer may owe to a person injured directly by the officer's affirmative actions. In this case, Robert Bassett-a homeowner injured in the course of Officer Paul Lamantia's pursuit of a criminal suspect-alleges he was injured directly by Lamantia's affirmative acts. Therefore, the public-duty doctrine is inapposite and we find that Lamantia owed Bassett a legal duty to exercise the same care that a reasonable officer with similar skill, training, and experience would under the same or similar circumstances.[2]

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶3 The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit submitted factual information in its certification order, which we summarize as follows.

         ¶4 Officer Lamantia and his partner responded to a neighborhood disturbance around 12:30 a.m. At the scene, Lamantia observed a male suspect running into a driveway. The suspect jumped over a retaining wall and proceeded into Bassett's backyard. Lamantia identified himself as a police officer and ordered the suspect to stop. The suspect continued to run and Lamantia followed on foot, jumping over the retaining wall but dropping his flashlight in the process.

         ¶5 In the meantime, Bassett came out of his house to investigate the commotion. Lamantia, searching for his flashlight, heard footsteps behind him and turned around to see Bassett approaching. Fearing for his safety, Lamantia tackled Bassett to the ground. Lamantia released Bassett as soon as he realized that Bassett was not a threat. Bassett then pointed Lamantia in the suspect's direction and Lamantia continued pursuit. Later that morning, Lamantia returned to check on Bassett, who declined an ambulance or medical help. A few hours later, however, Bassett called the police department to report that he was injured during his encounter with Lamantia. Bassett was subsequently diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff.

         ¶6 Bassett later sued Lamantia and the City of Billings in state court. Bassett alleged a state-law negligence claim against Lamantia for failing to exercise reasonable care in performing his duties and a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 violation. Lamantia and the City removed the case to federal court, where the United States District Court entered summary judgment in their favor on both claims. Regarding the negligence claim, the court found that the public-duty doctrine shielded Lamantia and the City from liability because no special relationship existed. Bassett appealed the court's decision concerning only the negligence claim to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Based on these facts, the Ninth Circuit certified to this Court the public-duty doctrine question.[3]

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         ¶7 M. R. App. P. 15(3) permits this Court to answer a question of law certified to it by another qualifying court. Accordingly, as a question of law, our review of a certified question is "purely an interpretation of the law as applied to the agreed facts underlying the action." N. Pac. Ins. Co. v. Stucky, 2014 MT 299, ¶ 18, 377 Mont. 25, 338 P.3d 56 (quoting Van ...


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