Ken Garten: How far should immunity for officials extend?

Staff Writer
The Examiner
The Examiner

Under Missouri law, public officials are protected from civil liability by the doctrine of official immunity for action taken without malice within the course of their official duties. The defense applies to “discretionary” acts, but not “ministerial” acts, whatever that means.

The current body of law in Missouri on the official immunity doctrine and related governmental immunity defenses is, in my opinion, something of a tangled web.

The policy behind the official immunity doctrine, our courts have said is “that society’s compelling interest in vigorous and effective administration of public affairs requires that the law protect those individuals who, in the face of imperfect information and limited resources, must daily exercise their best judgment in conducting the public’s business.”

“Courts applying the doctrine of official immunity must be cautious not to construe it too narrowly lest they frustrate the need for relieving public servants of the threat of burdensome litigation.’”

But cases go both ways as to what claims give rise to official immunity. In some situations, the courts have construed official immunity to prevent civil liability claims, and in some, they have not.

For instance, back in 1981, the Missouri Court of Appeals held in a major case that official immunity did not apply to shield a physician employed by a state mental hospital from civil liability for malpractice.

But then last month, our Missouri Supreme Court took up the issue of whether official immunity applies to claims of professional negligence – legal malpractice – against state public defenders brought by the indigent criminal defendants they are appointed to represent.

It seems that back in 1993, Dwight Laughlin was charged with state crimes for burglarizing and damaging a U.S. Post Office. He was represented by lawyers in the Missouri State Public Defender’s office, was convicted and was sentenced to 30 years.

Some years later, Mr. Laughlin was able to secure his release based upon a somewhat obscure jurisdictional defect in the state prosecution, which was not raised or at least pushed by his public defenders in his trial.

And so Mr. Laughlin sued his public defenders for malpractice.

The malpractice case went to trial, and Mr. Laughlin won a verdict against his former public defenders, whose defense counsel was all the while maintaining that their public defender clients were immune from liability by way of official immunity.

Mr. Laughlin’s attorneys and the trial court disagreed.

Thus, the public defenders appealed, and the case went to the Missouri Supreme Court, which reversed the trial court, and held that indeed public defenders acting in the defense of appointed clients in criminal cases fall within the purview of the official immunity defense, and took away Mr. Laughlin’s verdict and judgment against his former attorneys.

In so holding, the Missouri Supreme Court cited a number of cases from other states, including the leading case on point from the Minnesota Supreme Court, which said: “Immunity from suit for public defenders best serves the indigent population in preserving the resources of the defender’s office for the defense of the criminally accused. … The extension of immunity to public defenders will ensure that the resources available to the public defender will be used for the defense of the accused, rather than diminished through the defense of public defenders against civil suits for malpractice.”

This ruling makes sense from a policy standpoint. Convicts in prison have lots of time on their hands, and some use that time to file lawsuits. To permit suits against public defenders by their clients, many of whom spend their days in the prison law library, could open the floodgates.

But not now.

And so it is settled in Missouri, public defenders are immune from suit for all but malicious acts in fulfilling their duty.

Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at