Janice M. Thomas


Cathy Trent-Vilim

Partners Janice M. Thomas and Cathy Trent-Vilim recently won an appeal in the Iowa Court of Appeals. The case turned on whether an Iowa city owed a legal duty to a minor who was attacked by a dog while she was playing in her own yard. The minor, through her parents, alleged the city was negligent for failing to destroy the dog, which had not been vaccinated for rabies prior to the attack.

Shortly after suit was filed, the city moved to dismiss the complaint on grounds it was immune from liability by public-duty doctrine. Under the public duty doctrine, a duty owed by the government to all is a duty to none. The doctrine most often applies when the plaintiff’s claims are premised on the government’s nonfeasance, that is, the government’s failure to act.

The district court granted the motion, and on appeal the Iowa Court of Appeals agreed the doctrine barred the minor’s suit. The public duty doctrine also shielded the city from liability arising from alleged violations of various dog-related statutes. Finally, the Court of Appeals rejected the minor’s strict liability claim, rejecting the plaintiff’s argument that the city became the dog’s owner by default since it is unlawful to own an unvaccinated dog.