Government Entities – Case Law Update

Margheim v. Buljko

This case arose from Margheim’s involvement in three state criminal matters – two domestic violence cases and a later drug case. His malicious prosecution claim was based on his prosecution in the drug case, but the three cases were tied together. When deputy district attorney Emela Buljko raised the qualified immunity defense in district court, Margheim had the burden to show a violation of clearly established federal law.  Margheim failed to show dismissal of the criminal charges indicated his innocence, which was an essential element of his malicious prosecution claim against Buljko to establish a constitutional violation.  It explained, “Dismissal based on the suppression of evidence on technical’ grounds having no or little relation to the evidence’s trustworthiness is not “favorable under our case law to support a malicious prosecution claim.  Mr. Margheim won his suppression motion because the arrest warrant that led to the search was invalid.”  (Pg. 21, internal quotation marks and citation omitted.)  Therefore,  the Tenth Circuit reversed and remanded with instructions to grant qualified immunity to Buljko.

Miller v. West Valley City

Miller was injured in a West Valley City swimming pool when some teenage girls came into her lane and she ran into one of them.  She asserted premises liability and negligence claims asserting the lifeguard did not take adequate action to remove the girls from the pool.  The district court dismissed the case for failure to state a claim. The Utah Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling.

First, it ruled Miller did not plead facts sufficient to establish liability against the City because there were no allegations that the City made a voluntary undertaking to protect her, that the voluntary undertaking was done without reasonable care, and that Miller reasonably relied on this undertaking. Second, it ruled that the “dangerous condition” alleged by Miller – a teenager obstructing a swim lane – is not a property defect and is not connected to a dangerous condition of the building.  Therefore, there was no waiver of immunity under the Governmental Immunity Act of Utah.

Third, and most notably, it concluded that the public duty doctrine barred Miller from bringing a claim against WVC.  In doing so, it reiterated the long-standing rule that the public duty doctrine applies only to omissions of a government actor, not to its affirmative acts: “Where the harm is directly caused by a third party . . . the government is not liable for its failure to rescue the plaintiff from the external harm.”  It found the public duty doctrine barred Miller’s claims because her complaint repeatedly characterized the City’ actions as a failing to exercise reasonable care and failing to keep the swimming lanes clear of hazards.  This, coupled with the fact that the harm was caused by a third party, not by the affirmative acts of the lifeguard, and thus was caused by an omission.  It further concluded that Miller failed to establish a special relationship with the City, that exception to the public duty doctrine did not apply.  It explained, “[T]he lifeguard did not owe Miller a duty specific to her.  Rather, WVC’s lifeguards were employed to ensure the safety of the general public.  The lifeguard monitoring the pool in which Miller was swimming was there to survey the conditions of the entire pool and ensure the safety of all its patrons.”

These summaries are for informational purposes only.  Neither Snow Christensen & Martineau, nor Heather White, represented any of the parties involved.