Special Relationship/Immunity

Bower v. City of Lockport 115 A.D.3d 1201 (4th Dept. 2014)

The plaintiff fell down a flight of stairs while police were on scene investigating a possible burglary. The plaintiff sued the officers for negligence, claiming a voluntary special relationship. Both parties moved for summary judgment and the court denied both motions. The Fourth Department reversed as to the defendant officers and granted their motion.

The court reviewed special relationships between municipalities and the public. A special relationship can be formed in three ways:

(1) when the municipality violates a statutory duty enacted for the benefit of a particular class of persons; (2) when it voluntarily assumes a duty that generates justifiable reliance by the person who benefits from the duty; or (3) when the municipality assumes positive direction in the face of a known blatant and dangerous safety violation.

The court specifically focused on the second way. The elements for voluntarily assuming a duty 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.

The court held the plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether the police officers at the house assumed or promised any action on the plaintiff’s behalf. Furthermore, the court held that the defense of governmental function immunity constituted a separate and independent ground for dismissal of the case. In this case, the court noted the officers were providing police protection and investigating a possible crime. Both are considered quintessential government functions.