Cities in Washington May be Subject to Liability for Slow 911 Response Times Despite the Public Duty Doctrine

Cities in Washington May be Subject to Liability for Slow 911 Response Times Despite the Public Duty Doctrine


Is a city’s response to a 911 call an individualized actionable duty or nonactionable duty owed to the general public? In Washington, if a duty is owed to the general public, the public duty doctrine may shield a city from potential liability for its allegedly negligent action. The Washington Supreme Court recently analyzed the interaction between a caller and the 911 operator in Norg v. City of Seattle to determine what duty was owed by the defendant city in that circumstance.



The plaintiff wife called 911 when her husband became non-responsive. She provided her name and address (accurately), and within one minute was told emergency responders from the closest fire department had been dispatched to her location. She lived three blocks from the nearest fire department and had confirmed her address two additional times after she initially divulged her location.

Even though the emergency responders were provided the plaintiffs’ address, they instead drove to a nursing home which frequently called for assistance. They passed by the plaintiffs’ apartment on their way. Six minutes later, they arrived at the nursing home and realized the location was incorrect. They ultimately arrived at the correct location, but the journey had taken over 15 minutes. The plaintiffs sued the city for negligence, alleging the fire department’s delayed response aggravated injuries to the husband plaintiff. In its answer, the city asserted the affirmative defense of the public duty doctrine, which would bar the plaintiffs’ claims entirely.



At the trial court level, both parties filed motions for summary judgment. The plaintiffs moved to strike the city’s public duty doctrine defense and the city moved for dismissal under the public duty doctrine. The trial court granted partial summary judgment in the plaintiffs’ favor by striking the public duty doctrine defense, and the city appealed. The Washington Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court and the city therefore moved for discretionary review.

The Washington Supreme Court analyzed the public duty doctrine as it applied in this case by first identifying the duty allegedly breached and then determining whether that duty was based on a generally applicable statute or an individually applicable duty.  The court ultimately determined that from the nature of the plaintiffs’ claim and the facts at issue, the claim was based on a duty owed to the plaintiffs individually. As such, the court agreed with the trial court and found that the public duty doctrine did not apply as a matter of law[i], and therefore that the city defendant was not shielded from potential liability. The court disagreed with the defendant’s assertions that the claim should be barred solely because it was made against a governmental ambulance service rather than a private corporation and compared the City’s ambulance to a private ambulance service in noting that such a private service could be held liable in these same circumstances. The court noted that, “….barring [the plaintiffs’] claim solely because it is made against a governmental ambulance service would mean that the governmental entity is subject to less tort liability than a comparable private entity, rather than “the same” tort liability, as required by our legislature.”[ii]



The court concluded emergency medical assistance was not a unique function of government, and that the plaintiffs’ negligence claim was based solely on the City’s alleged breach of common law duty to exercise reasonable care when responding to the plaintiff’s specific call for emergency. In holding that the city could be found liable under these circumstances, the court made clear that when a plaintiff establishes that a defendant city owes them an individualized, actionable duty of care, the city may not shield itself with the public duty doctrine.




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[i] Norg v. City of Seattle, 522 P.3d 580 (Wash.2023)

[ii] Id., emphasis in original, citing RCW 4.96.010(1) and RCW 4.92.010.