City Not Liable for Negligence Following Murder of Confidential Informant

Today the Second Circuit held, in Velez v. City of New York (LYNCH, Lohier, Carney) that plaintiff, the mother of representative for her deceased son Anthony Velez, was not entitled to a new trial following a verdict for defendants.

Mr. Velez was murdered after the police officers searched an apartment based on a confidential tip from him.  Plaintiff sued, alleging that defendants were liable for her son’s death.

The court held that the jury instructions on the issue of the “special relationship” doctrine – which arose in the context of plaintiff’s state law negligence claim – were proper.  The jury found that plaintiff failed to establish that officers Hall and Ruggiero knew that their inaction could lead to harm to Velez.

The court cited to the New York Court of Appeals’ 2013 decision in Applewhite v. Accuhealth which lays out the governing principles of New York law regarding the duties owed by municipalities and their employees.

The court summarized the law as follows:

When a negligence claim is asserted against a municipality or its employees, the threshold inquiry is whether the municipal entity was engaged in a proprietary function or acted in a governmental capacity at the time the claim arose. A municipality performs a governmental function when its acts are undertaken for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to the general police powers. Providing police protection has long been recognized as a quintessential governmental function.

Where, as here, a municipality undoubtedly acts in a governmental capacity, a plaintiff may notrecover without proving that the municipality owed a special duty to the injured party.  The core principle is that to sustain liability against a municipality, the duty breached must be more than that owed the public generally. The plaintiff bears the burden of proving a special relationship, and where the plaintiff fails to meet this burden, the analysis ends and liability may not be imputed to the municipality that acted in a governmental capacity.

To establish the requisite “special relationship,” plaintiff was required to establish four elements:

(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.

Furthermore, “[t]he distinction between nonfeasance and misfeasance is irrelevant to the … analysis, and the existence of a special relationship is a question of fact that may be properly submitted to a jury.”

Applying these principles, the court held that a “special duty” instruction was proper here, and that the district court was not required to declare the existence of a special relationship as a matter of law:

Although a municipality owes a special duty to use reasonable care for the protection of persons who have collaborated with it in the arrest or prosecution of criminals, such a duty attaches only once it reasonably appears that the collaborators are in danger due to their collaboration. Thus, the fact that Velez had provided information to the police does not, by itself, establish the existence of a special duty; whether such a duty exists depends on the factors set out in Applewhite, including the officers’ knowledge of a danger to Velez and reliance by him on police protection. The evidence adduced at trial did not compel the conclusion that a threat to Velez’s life was reasonably apparent, nor that any such threat had been reported to police officers. Thus, the issue was properly submitted to the jury, and the jury specifically found that the plaintiff had failed to prove that either Hall or Ruggiero had knowledge that his action or inaction could lead to harm to Anthony Velez.

Moreover, it was proper to instruct the jury that the elements of a special relationship had to be established as to Hall or Ruggiero in order for municipal liability to attach. While “in the abstract … a municipality may acquire knowledge though any of its agents,” those officers “were the only officers who had any knowledge of Velez’s identity and of his role in the police operation at the subject apartment.” Therefore the jury’s finding that neither of them knew that Velez was in danger was fatal to plaintiff’s claims against the City.

Finally, the court held that plaintiff’s negligent training claim failed as a matter of law, since it was undisputed that the defendants were acting within the scope of their employment.

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