skip navigation


liibulletin-ny

Anthony Mastroianni, &C. v. County of Suffolk et al., 91 N.Y.2d 198 (Dec. 2, 1997).

MUNICIPAL LIABILITY -- DOMESTIC VIOLENCE -- JUSTIFIABLE RELIANCE

DECEDENT'S JUSTIFIABLE RELIANCE ON POLICE PROTECTION CONTRIBUTED TO FORMING A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE DECEDENT AND THE MUNICIPALITY.

[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]

SUMMARY

Plaintiff commenced an action to recover damages for decedent's death. Plaintiff claimed that police department failed to provide adequate protection after it had been directly notified that decedent's ex-husband violated an order of protection. The police department moved for summary judgment. The Supreme Court denied the motion. It found that an order of protection satisfies proof of an affirmative duty to act and that there were sufficient questions of fact relating to the reasonableness of the police officers' actions. The Appellate Division reversed holding that the defendants did not owe a special duty to the decedent. Plaintiff appealed.

ISSUE & DISPOSITION

Issue

Did the existence of an order of protection, the extended contact between the police and decedent, and the decedent's justifiable reliance on the officer's affirmative undertaking on her behalf, serve to establish a special relationship between the decedent and the municipality?

Disposition

Yes, a special relationship between the police department and the decedent arose from the circumstances that existed.

AUTHORITIES CITED

Cases Cited by the Court

  • Merced v. City of New York, 75 N.Y.2d 798 (N.Y. 1990).
  • Kircher v. City of Jamestown, 74 N.Y.2d 251 (N.Y. 1989).
  • Cuffy v. City of New York, 69 N.Y.2d 255 (N.Y. 1987).
  • Sorichetti v. City of New York, 65 N.Y.2d 461 (N.Y. 1985).
  • Riss v. City of New York, 22 N.Y.2d 579 (N.Y. 1968).

Other Sources Cited by the Court

Related Sources

  • Coffman v. Wilson Police Dep't, 739 F. Supp. 257 (E.D. Pa. 1990).
  • Robinson v. San Antonio, 727 S.W.2d 40 (Tex. Ct. App. 1987).
  • Simpson's Food Fair, Inc. v. Evansville., 272 N.E.2d 871 (Ind. App. 1971).

COMMENTARY

State of the Law Before Mastroianni

A municipality generally may not be held liable for injuries resulting from a failure to provide police protection. See Kircher v. City of Jamestown, 74 N.Y.2d 251, 256 (N.Y. 1989); Cuffy v. City of New York, 69 N.Y.2d 255, 260 (N.Y. 1987). The Court of Appeals has, however, recognized an exception to this rule and upheld tort claims when a "special relationship" exists between the municipality and the claimant. Cuffy, 69 N.Y.2d at 260. The "special relationship" is created when the following elements are present:
(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.
Id.

In cases involving alleged police negligence due to a failure to provide protection after having been notified of a violation of a protective order, the Court of Appeals has held that a "special relationship" may exist giving rise to municipal liability. See, e.g., Sorichetti v. City of New York, 65 N.Y.2d 461, 469-70 (N.Y. 1985). However, the Sorichetti court made clear that "[t]he fact that an injury occurs because of a violation of an order of protection does not in itself create municipal liability." Id. at 470.

Prior to the Mastroianni decision, the New York Court of Appeals employed a stricter standard for determining the "justifiable reliance" needed to establish a "special relationship." The Cuffy court indicated that "the injured party's reliance is as critical in establishing the existence of a 'special relationship' as is the municipality's voluntary affirmative undertaking of a duty to act. That element provides the essential causative link between the "special duty" assumed by the municipality and the alleged injury." Cuffy, 69 N.Y.2d at 261. Furthermore, the Court asserted that at "the heart of most of these 'special duty' cases is the unfairness that the courts have perceived in precluding recovery when a municipality's voluntary undertaking has lulled the injured party into a false sense of security and has thereby induced [her] either to relax [her] own vigilance or to forego other available avenues of protection." Id.

Effect of Mastroianni on Current Law

The Mastroianni decision relaxes the requirements necessary to prove justifiable reliance on police protection. In Cuffy, the victims could not recover from the municipality because they knew the police were not present, even though the police assured them of their safety. However, the Mastroianni court indicates that the expectation of the party seeking protection, and not the physical location of the police, is the deciding factor in creating justifiable reliance. Thus, this ruling makes it easier to recover from a municipality.

Unanswered Questions

The court leaves open the question of what other actions might suffice to create justifiable reliance on police protection. The Mastroianni court states that the existence of an order of protection, standing alone, will not suffice to create justifiable reliance. Mastroianni at para. 15. However, it is not clear how much more the municipality must do or say to create a justifiable reliance on police protection. If the police in this case had left without saying that they would "do whatever they could," would the court have found the victim's reliance on police protection justified based only on the fact that the officers believed the order had in fact been broken? If the police had uttered the phrase we'll do "whatever we can," but erroneously had not believed that the order had been broken, would the court have found the requisite reliance? The flexible standard the court espouses leaves these issues undecided.

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

Courts in many states have adopted the rule that there can be no liability on the part of a municipality for its failure to provide police protection. Historically, courts have based the denial of municipal liability on a lack of public duty to individuals. Simpson's Food Fair, Inc. v. Evansville., 272 N.E.2d 871 (Ind. App. 1971). A duty to supply protection to any particular individual exists only when a "special relationship" arises.

State courts vary in their standards for finding a "special relationship." For instance, a Texas court granted summary judgment in favor of a municipality in an action by a mother alleging that her daughter's death at the hands of her former husband was a result of police failure to arrest the husband and enforce a protective order. Robinson v. San Antonio, 727 S.W.2d 40 (Tex. Ct. App. 1987). In that case, Texas government policy required that an arrest for violation of protective order only occur when the offense was committed in a police officer's presence or view. Id.

On the other hand, Pennsylvania courts use a standard for establishing a "special relationship" more similar to the New York rule. In Coffman v. Wilson Police Dep't, 739 F. Supp. 257 (E.D. Pa. 1990), the Federal District Court applied Pennsylvania law and found that a "special relationship" existed between a victim of spousal abuse and the municipality. In that case, the victim had a restraining order to prevent further abuse by her husband, and the police failed to respond to repeated complaints. Because the order stated that the police "shall" enforce the order, it created a property interest in police enforcement in favor of the victim. Id.

Prepared By:

  • Andrew I. Cohen, '99
  • Michael Graziano '99
  • Emmy B. Hackett, '98
  • Anita J. Lee, '98
  • Kelly M. Mann '98
  • Charlotte G. Thebaud, '99