B&D Defeats Negligence Claims Against DC Water
Litigators in Beveridge & Diamond’s Washington, DC, office secured partial summary judgment for firm client DC Water on negligence and statutory claims related to alleged lead in drinking water. Multiple Plaintiffs in a consolidated tort action asserted that DC Water acted negligently, violated consumer protection laws, and caused injuries due to allegedly elevated levels of lead in water in the early 2000s. In a 23-page decision, Judge Frederick Weisberg of the District of Columbia Superior Court dismissed claims of negligence and of violations of the Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA). Parkhurst et al. v. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), 2016 DC Super Lexis 1 (D.C. Super. Ct. January 13, 2016).
The Superior Court ruled that the “public duty doctrine” barred the negligence claims because this long-recognized principle protects government entities from lawsuits related to services provided to the public at large, such as furnishing drinking water. Specifically, the Court found that the public duty doctrine applied fully to DC Water, an agency established under District of Columbia law that:
The purpose of the public duty doctrine is to protect against the drain on the treasury from suits for damages against public officials arising out of their performance of duties owed to the general public, and to preserve the separation of powers by preventing judges and juries from scrutinizing the acts of every public official in the performance of his or her public duties. See Woods v. District of Columbia, 63 A.3d 551, 553 n.1 (D.C. 2013). Those purposes apply with full force to WASA as a governmental entity, as they did when the District itself performed the public functions it later delegated to WASA. Ensuring solvency for water and sewer operations is the very reason the Council and Congress created WASA as a separate entity.
The Parkhurst decision also rejected claims that DC Water could be liable for the alleged sale of defective drinking water in the early 2000s as a “merchant” under the CPPA. The Court wrote that “WASA exists for a distinctly public purpose and that the fees WASA charges are to maintain its solvency and to enable it to fulfill its statutory public purposes, not to turn a profit,” thus shielding it from suit under the version of the CPPA in effect in the early 2000s. Furthermore, the Court ruled that remedies under the CPPA were limited to statutory relief and DC Water was entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiffs’ CPPA claims because Plaintiffs could not recover “damages for personal injury of a tortious nature.”
The opinion also addressed federal preemption under the Safe Drinking Water Act and discretionary function immunity arguments and declined to grant summary judgment on those issues.