Municipal Liability: The Court of Appeals Clarifies Immunity Law

Illustration: Jeff Hopkins.

Illustration: Jeff Hopkins.

When municipalities are sued in tort, two of the most powerful bars to recovery are the public duty principle and the governmental function immunity defense. When these two principles are applicable, the City will not be made to pay compensation even if a City employee had been negligent and caused an injury.

Over the past 70 years the public duty principle and governmental function immunity defense have generated reams of confusing and, often, conflicting, decisions. Recently, the New York Court of Appeals clarified these principles to require proof of a special duty in order to state a viable tort claim against a municipality. An injured person alleging an injury caused by the City’s failure to perform a public duty cannot recover unless the injured person alleges and establishes, as an element of his or her claim, a special relationship by which the City assumed a specific duty with respect to the injured person.

Prior to the recent Court of Appeals’ opinions, it was not clear that proof of a special duty was an element of all tort claims against the City acting in its governmental capacity. It is now clear that the plaintiff, to present a prima facie case for recovery, must first successfully establish a special duty. If the plaintiff cannot get past the special duty hurdle, there is no need for the court to address the applicability of the governmental function immunity defense, which provides absolute immunity for discretionary determinations where discretion has been exercised.


The often-repeated policy reason for limiting governmental tort liability is that government would not be financially viable if it were made the insurer of the safety of the public for injuries caused principally by third parties. Governmental entities could have a disincentive from providing important governmental services if they knew that doing so could seriously jeopardize the public treasury. The courts do not limit recovery, however, when a municipality acts in a proprietary capacity — when its activities essentially substituted for or supplemented those undertaken by a private enterprise, such as property ownership, operation of a motor vehicle, or providing hospital services.

When a municipality acted in its governmental capacity, sovereign immunity historically protected the municipality against tort recovery by injured persons. That absolute protection against tort recovery lasted in New York until the State Legislature, in 1929, waived New York State’s sovereign immunity as part of the Court of Claims Act. Although the waiver by the State Legislature only mentioned the State of New York, the Court of Appeals in 1945, in Bernardine v. City of New York, 294 N.Y. 361 (1945), interpreted the waiver to apply as well to municipal entities like New York City. But as the Court of Appeals subsequently held, the waiver did not eliminate all governmental immunities or other bars to governmental liability.

In the years since 1945, courts wrestled with sorting out when liability was appropriate and when it was not. For example, courts generally refused to hold municipal governments liable for failing to prevent fires or crime. Municipal governments undertake all sorts of public duties like police protection, fire protection, child protection, education, building inspections, and the like. Were a municipality liable every time a crime was committed that governmental actors had failed to prevent, or an inspector made a mistake, or a student was not sufficiently educated, it would be under a crushing financial burden that could result in bankruptcy. At the same time, courts created exceptions that allowed negligence claims to proceed even where municipalities performed quintessential governmental functions. Special duty was one such exception. Another exception allowed for liability where the governmental action was ministerial rather than discretionary.

The cases creating and examining the exceptions to municipal immunity generated considerable confusion among both litigants and the courts. Of particular importance was how to treat these various concepts in litigation. Was governmental immunity resulting from the performance of a public duty, or the principle of special duty, or the discretionary/ministerial nature of governmental decisions a threshold bar to suit or, instead, was it a defense; and if a defense, was it qualified or absolute?

Valdez v. City of New York

In October 2011 the Court of Appeals in Valdez v. City, 18 N.Y.3d 69 (2011) clarified 70 years of jurisprudence and articulated an analysis to be applied when considering whether an individual may sue a municipal government for negligent performance of, or failure to perform, governmental functions. The decision in Valdez must now be the starting point in analyzing liability in any negligence tort suit against the government or governmental actors.

First, the Court of Appeals confirmed the basic tenet that although sovereign immunity was waived in the Court of Claims Act, tort liability will generally not attach to governmental entities or government employees performing governmental functions, regardless of whether the function is discretionary or ministerial. Where statutory or regulatory mandates require a government to act for the benefit of the public as a whole, the government and its actors cannot be sued for failing to provide or negligently providing such services. The Court articulated this principle as the “public duty” rule, not as “immunity.”

In order to overcome the public duty bar, an individual as a threshold issue must show that there existed a special duty running in favor of the claimant as an individual. The Valdez Court held that for a litigant to proceed successfully with a tort suit against a municipality, a plaintiff must first plead a “special duty” running specifically to him or her. A special duty can be formed when a municipality or its employee:

• violates a statutory duty enacted for the benefit of a particular class of persons;
• assumes positive direction and control in the face of a known, blatant, and dangerous safety violation; or
• voluntarily assumes a duty that generated justifiable reliance by the person through the employee’s actions or promises to the person.

The Valdez Court also held that whether the facts are legally sufficient to establish a special duty is an objective question of law for the court.

The Court of Appeals made clear, therefore, that special duty is neither an exception to immunity nor a defense, but instead is an initial and essential element of any tort claim against the government and governmental actors. The Court of Appeals also made clear that, even if a plaintiff succeeds in articulating a viable special duty, tort liability may still be barred by the “governmental function immunity defense.” Valdez, 18 N.Y.3d at 75-76. That defense shields governmental entities from liability for discretionary actions taken during the performance of governmental functions. This discretionary defense is qualified in that the municipality must establish that the governmental action related to the incident was both a discretionary one and that discretion was, in fact, exercised.

A government employee’s failure to perform a ministerial action, on the other hand, may subject the government to liability if a special duty has been established.

In late 2012 and mid-2013, the Court of Appeals issued two additional opinions which reconfirmed Valdez’s analysis of when the government may be sued in tort. In Metz v. State, 20 N.Y.3d 175 (2012), twenty people were killed and many others injured when a tour boat on Lake George capsized. Plaintiffs claimed that State inspectors had negligently inspected the vessel and had failed to exercise any discretion in fixing the number of passengers who could safely travel on the tour boat. They argued, therefore, that the State was not entitled to immunity for their actions.

The Appellate Division, Third Department, ruled that the inspection function was governmental and found that plaintiffs had failed to establish a special duty. However, the Third Department went on to find a viable claim against the State because the State could not demonstrate that it exercised discretion in certifying the vessel as seaworthy. The Court of Appeals reversed and rejected the Third Department’s analysis. The Court, relying on Valdez, ruled that, since inspections are a governmental function, the Appellate Division’s analysis should have ended with the finding that plaintiffs had not established a special duty. Insofar as the plaintiffs did not and could not articulate a special duty, no liability could be imposed against the State and the nature of the governmental conduct – discretionary or ministerial – was not relevant. There was no reason to address the immunity defense since the plaintiff had not established the initial requirement of a special duty.

In Applewhite v. City, 21 N.Y.3d 420 (2013), plaintiff, a 12-year-old child living at home and cared for by a private nurse, went into cardiac arrest after being administered certain medications. The plaintiff’s mother called 911 and an ambulance arrived within minutes. The plaintiff child and mother sued the nurse and the City, claiming that the child suffered severe brain damage as a result of negligent treatment at the scene. Plaintiffs argued that, although maintaining the 911 system and ambulance services are governmental functions, once the EMTs cross the threshold and tend to the patient, the function becomes a proprietary one. The City responded that the function continues as a governmental one and that no special duty was created.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the City’s argument that the emergency rescue function is a governmental police protection function both before and after the emergency medical personnel arrived. Because these were governmental and public duties, the plaintiffs needed to articulate a special duty in order to state a viable tort claim. The Court then ruled that there existed a question of fact as to whether the City assumed a special duty under the unique circumstances of the case and remanded the case for trial.

Future claims against the City
For litigants against the City, step one in developing a claim is to distinguish the City’s proprietary activities from the governmental. If proprietary, then there generally is no issue of a public duty bar and the claim may proceed.

If the activity is governmental, however, the public duty bar must first be overcome. As an element of the plaintiff’s claim, the plaintiff must allege and establish the existence of a special duty. Assuming a plaintiff successfully overcomes the special duty hurdle, the government will still not be liable if the challenged conduct was discretionary and it exercised discretion. If plaintiff overcomes the public duty principle and the immunity bar, the plaintiff’s tort claim may then proceed.

By Fay Leoussis, Chief, Tort Division — New York City Law Department


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