Can I Sue The City? Examples Of Special Duty Relationships


Recall our general rule: The City has no duty to act in any of its governmental functions, unless a “special duty relationship” was created with respect to the injured person (see Feb. 12, 2010 post). For the record, as an aside, this general rule does NOT apply in most matters relating to highways–for whatever reason.

Obviously, one of the premier governmental functions of a city are its police activities. Unsurprisingly, an area garnering a great percentage of inquiries to Personal Injury Attorneys are from individuals injured by the actions, or inaction, of the police. Aside from bankrupting the City if , for example, every single crime victim was entitled to sue the City, the courts will often demand the Plaintiff demonstrate a “Special Duty Relationship” existed between the Plaintiff and the Police (see Feb.12,2010 blog post for elements of “Special Duty Relationship“).

Some examples of decisions by courts might prove interesting, if not actually instructive:

—Police warned an individual they saw getting out of a fully parked vehicle not to drive his vehicle because he was obviously intoxicated. The police then went on their way. Fifteen minutes later the same individual was involved in an accident causing an injury. The injured party brought suit against the municipality because the police failed to detain the intoxicated person. RESULT: The city was NOT liable. There is no liability for failure to provide police protection here since there was no “Special Duty Relationship” established with the party eventually injured. (Jessop v. Niagara Falls)

—The City of New York was sued when, as a result of an automobile accident, police on the scene directed one of the involved vehicles to back up. That vehicle pinned a bystander against another vehicle, eventually resulting in an amputation of that bystander’s leg. RESULT: The law suit by the bystander against the City was successful. The court said that once the officer undertook to take action, that action had to be done properly and with care! (Kovit v. Hallums)
—Police removed a vehicle from an accident on a highway and placed flares at the scene. A motorcycle driver hit the removed vehicle and sued the City of New York for what he claimed was improper securing of the original accident scene. RESULT: The City was not liable. Placing of flares is a governmental function. Without a “Special Duty Relationship”, which was not established, the City cannot be held responsible. (Respass v. City of New York).
—EMS workers, working for the NYC Health and Hospitals Corporation, responded to an emergency. The person treated by the EMS personnel died. The estate of that deceased sued. RESULT : The lawsuit was permitted. Once treatment was started, it had to be performed properly and competently. (see Kovit case above) (Fonville v. NYCH&H Corp.)

CONCLUSION: In very many instances, even a highly experienced Personal Injury Attorney will have to examine a case in detail, before making a fully informed and proper decision, as to whether a particular matter is properly subject to a suit against a municipality.
Experience, in “Special Duty” cases, is an invaluable commodity when hoping to maximize the chances of successfully pursuing a matter against a municipal defendant.


Municipal Liability | Can I Sue The City? | “Special Duty”


There is a basic rule that is applied when a lawsuit is contemplated against a municipal entity, such as the City of New York. That rule gives the City, or any municipality, “absolute immunity” for the acts of that government’s employees. This holds true even if those employees failed to act when they should have, or having acted, they did so in a negligent manner.

An individual resident of the City will have no basis for a successful lawsuit for injuries sustained through the acts of the City’s employees UNLESS that individual can demonstrate that a “SPECIAL DUTY” existed on the part of the City in favor of that particular individual.

The New York Court of Appeals (New York’s highest court) established four “elements” that create a “SPECIAL DUTY” relationship between a municipality and an individual:
— the municipality assumes a duty to act on behalf of the individual;
— the municipality’s employees must be aware of the fact that a failure to act may result in harm to that individual;
— there must have been some direct contact between the municipality’s employees or agents and the affected individual; and
— the individual harmed must have been justified in relying upon the assurance given to him/her by the city’s employees or agents.
Without demonstrating the existence of each and every one of these four elements, the injury incurred through the acts or omissions of municipal employees may go entirely uncompensated.

An experienced Personal Injury Attorney will also be aware of the fact that certain broad areas of acts by municipal employees are not considered “governmental” in nature–which acts ARE subject to the rules of “Special Duty Relationships”—but are , rather, considered “proprietary” in nature, and are instead decided by ordinary rules of liability and do not require the establishment of a “special duty” in order for the city to be held liable.