New York Court of Appeals Upstands the Public Duty Rule for Injury Caused
On March 22, 2022, the New York Court of Appeals reaffirmed the applicability of the Public Duty Rule with equal force where the government was alleged to be liable for causing injury to a plaintiff. Ferreira v City of Binghamton 2022 NY Slip Op 01953. It maintained the Public Duty Rule and discussed the conditions of the special duty of a plaintiff where it alleged that injury was caused due to negligent performance of a governmental function.
In the present case, the plaintiff alleged to be a victim of negligence on the part of both City of Binghamton Police Officer Kevin Miller and other police personnel involved in the raid. On August 19, 2011, a Police Officer received a piece of confidential information that a person named Michael Pride had recently robbed local drug dealers, was carrying weapons, and was staying at his girlfriend’s apartment. Based on this information, the police obtained a “no-knock” search warrant for the given address. On August 24, 2011, the police officers saw Pride and a man in front of the address engaged in “activity consistent with a drug transaction”. The next morning, in anticipation of Pride being armed, the police department activated a SWAT team unit for the evening of the same day to conduct a “dynamic entry” into the house located at the given address. To force entry, the team planned to use a battering ram to open the front door, and then enter quickly in a tight, single-file “stack” formation. Defendant Miller was assigned the front position in this formation. In the early morning of August 25, 2011, the SWAT team arrived for the raid. However, it failed to breach the front door by the ram operator. The officer yelled through the door to announce their presence. Plaintiff was asleep on his living room sofa when Defendant Miller entered the living room. While being at a distance of three to six feet from the plaintiff, Defendant Miller shot him in the stomach.
As the case came before the trial court, a civil jury determined that the City was negligent in its planning and execution of the warrant. However, the trial court set aside the verdict against the City and held that because the plaintiff’s injuries arose from the execution of a governmental function, he was therefore required to establish that a special duty was owed for his specific protection. Further, the trial court found that the governmental immunity defense barred these claims as far as the plaintiff’s injury arose from the exercise of discretion in the performance of police work.
The Second Circuit court reversed the verdict of the trial court. It said, with respect to governmental immunity, there was ample evidence presented at trial to support the jury’s determination that the City violated established police procedures. This led to a finding that police did not exercise reasonable discretion and therefore could not avail immunity that attaches to judgment calls made in the court of performing police work. The Second Circuit court certified a question to the Court of Appeals which revolved around the issue that whether the Public Duty Rule bars plaintiff’s recovery for injuries that arose from a negligently planned or executed warrant execution.
The public duty doctrine states that police protection is a duty owed to the general public, not to a particular individual. The doctrine, like any other sovereign immunity, protects the government from liability at the expense of justice for individual citizens harmed by government action or negligence. The doctrine includes a “special circumstance” exception, which is applicable to rare cases when a court order or collaborator situation exists, and it is interpreted narrowly to include only those instances where the police are reasonably aware of the danger.
The New York Court in the case in discussion recognized that the Public Duty Rule runs on the same line as governmental immunity. And as per the Rule, a discretionary governmental action would never be the basis for liability, but governmental action which is not borne out of the exercise of discretion would be actionable only when a plaintiff pleads and proves the existence of a special duty. Under the special duty, the plaintiff, in order to sustain liability in negligence against a municipality, must establish that the duty breached is greater than that owed to the public generally. It further held that there was no distinction between the fact that whether the injury was inflicted through municipal negligence or the municipality’s negligence lay in the failure to protect the plaintiff from an injury inflicted by its employee.
The majority while discussing the special duty requirement said that its purpose was to bar liability considering the fact that the rule “is intended to ‘allocate[e] resources where they would most benefit the public and ensure that ‘the prime concern’ is not ‘the avoidance of tort liability but ‘the promotion of the public welfare.” It further laid down conditions for applicability of special duty, the same are (1) where a municipality affirmatively assumes a duty to protect an individual that is reasonably relied upon by that person; (2) the plaintiff belonged to a class for whose benefit a statute was enacted; and (3) plaintiff was injured in a scenario where the municipality took positive control of a known and dangerous safety condition.
The special duty is in place to determine whether a plaintiff is entitled to protections that exceed the protection afforded to members of society in general. With its ration, the New York Court preserved the essence of the Public Duty Rule and did not carve out exceptions for cases where the government was alleged to be the cause of harm. It protected the municipalities while allowing compensation for plaintiffs where it is demonstrated that the government breached a duty owed specifically to them.
Research and Writing By: Team Draft n Craft
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