Sandra Ehrhart v. King County et al., No. 96464-5 (Wash. Sup. Ct. April 2, 2020)
Issue: Whether the regulations governing King County’s responsibility to issue health advisories
created a duty owed to individuals as opposed to a non-actionable duty owed to the public as a
Facts: This case arose out of the death of Brain Ehrhart, who died from contracting hantavirus in
early 2017. Hantavirus is a rare and serious infection presenting with flu-like symptoms but can
quickly progress to life-threatening respiratory complications. After a woman living near Issaquah
contracted hantavirus in November 2016, she was ultimately admitted as a patient to Overlake
Medical Center where she spent several days in a coma but survived. Overlake Medical Center
notified King County in December 2016. King County promptly conducted an investigation but
concluded that the patient had likely contracted hantavirus on her own property. In February 2017,
Mr. Ehrhart was rushed to the emergency room and died shortly thereafter due to organ failure.
His widow sued King County’s public health department, Swedish Medical Center and an
emergency room physician for negligence. Ehrhart argued that WAC 246-101-505, which requires
King County to “[r]eview and determine appropriate action” whenever it receives reports of certain
serious conditions, created a duty that King County breached by failing to issue a health advisory
after it learned of the November 2016 case. King County asserted the public duty doctrine as an
affirmative defense, arguing it was not liable for Mr. Ehrhart’s death because it did not owe him a
duty as an individual. Ehrhart moved for partial summary judgment asking the court to dismiss this
defense. The trial court ruled that it was a question of fact whether the actions taken by King
County were appropriate. King County appealed.
Holding: The Washington Supreme Court concluded that the public duty doctrine barred liability
arising from King County’s response and that the “failure to enforce” exception to the public duty
doctrine did not apply. WAC 246-101-505 is intended to protect the public as a whole and does not
identify any particular group or category of individuals to whom governments owe a special
obligation. While WAC 246-101-505 sets forth the responsibility for King County to “[r]eview and
determine appropriate action,” such responsibilities are distinct from a requirement to enforce that
WAC against third-parties. Thus, King County only owed a duty to the public as a whole.
Discussion: This case offered the Washington Supreme Court a much-needed opportunity to
provide clarity on the distinction between the public duty doctrine and the discretionary immunity
doctrine. The Court confirmed that the public duty doctrine is rooted in tort principles and serves to
bar private negligence claims when a government breaches duties owed to the public as a whole. In
order to maintain a negligence claim, a plaintiff must prove that it was owed an individual duty, not
merely a general obligation to the public. Conversely, the discretional immunity doctrine is rooted
in separation of powers principles to protect state actors’ ability to take discretionary action that
does not result in such action being characterized as tortious. Accordingly, when litigating the
failure to enforce an exception to the public duty doctrine, this case confirms that the discretionary
immunity doctrine does not apply.
Briefing by Kristen Barnhart, an Associate Attorney in HWS Law Group LLP’s Seattle
Of ice. Kristen is licensed to practice in Washington.