New York Court of Appeals Considers Whether "Special Relationship" Exception Applies To Hold Municipality Liable
In Laratro v City of New York, 2006 NY Slip Op 0966, the plaintiff suffered severe brain damage as a result of a stroke and alleged that his injuries would have been far less severe had the City of New York's employees responded more quickly to the 911 call of one of his co-workers. A 911 operator informed his co-worker that "an ambulance will be there to help you as soon as possible", but one didn't arrive until 35 minutes later, apparently because the operator misunderstood the exigency of the situation.
The Court noted that municipalities are generally shielded from liability arising as a result of the breach of a duty by a firefighter, a police officer or an EMT in order to make municipal governments more effective in protecting their citizens since to allow liability across the board would burden municiplaites with excessive costs and the threat of litigation might very well stifle the effective rendering of emergency services.
However, the "special relationship" doctrine is a well recognized exception to this rule, as the Court explained:
There exists . . . a narrow class of cases in which we have recognized an exception to this general rule and have upheld tort claims based upon a 'special relationship' between the municipality and the claimant. The elements of this 'special relationship' are: (1) an assumption by the municipality, through promises or actions, of an affirmative duty to act on behalf of the party who was injured; (2) knowledge on the part of the municipality's agents that inaction could lead to harm; (3) some form of direct contact between the municipality's agents and the injured party; and (4) that party's justifiable reliance on the municipality's affirmative undertaking. (Internal citations and quotations omitted).
The Court then considered whether the "special relationship" exception applied in this case. The Court noted that the 3rd and 4th requirements of the rule were not satisfied since "the plaintiff did not have direct contact with, and did not rely on any undertaking by, the City's 911 operator."
The Court noted that in only one situation did its prior precedent allow a "special relationship" to be created on behalf of persons unable to communicate with municipal employees themselves--where the person making contact is the immediate family member of the person requiring assistance. And, in this case, since the plaintiff's co-worker was not a member of his immediate family, a "special relationship" was not created by the 911 phone call.
In my opinion, this entire line of cases requiring a familial relationship is absurd. In many cases, the citizens that are in the most dire need of assistance from emergency services are those who are unable to ask for assistance, either because they are too gravely ill or have been abducted or otherwise rendered helpless. To only allow recovery from municipalities under the "special relationship" exception where the a member of the injured party's immediate family just happens to be on hand to request emergency assistance is ridiculous.
And, what of the situation where a parent is too distraught to make the phone call and asks a close friend to request emergency assistance on behalf of the injured or abducted child, but is unaware of this "immediate family member" requirement? If a municipal employee is subsequently negligent in responding and the child dies, are the parents to be penalized simply because they asked a good friend to call rather than making the call themselves? That result makes no sense at all to me, but precedent seems to require it.