Trial Court Should Have Dismissed Blizzard Death Lawsuit Due to Absence of “Special Relationship”

In Freeman v. City of New York (decided November 20, 2013), the Appellate Division, Second Department held that plaintiff failed to state a claim for relief.

Plaintiff alleged that her mother Yvonne Freeman died after the December 27, 2010 blizzard because defendants “were negligent in failing to provide emergency services, and in failing to prepare for, and respond to, the snowstorm.”

The general rule is that “a municipality may not be held liable to a person injured by the breach of a duty owed to the general public, such as a duty to provide police protection, fire protection or ambulance services.”

This rule, however, is subject to a narrow exception, under which a plaintiff may maintain a tort claim “based upon a special relationship between the municipality and the claimant” which “imposes a specific duty upon the municipality to act on behalf of the claimant.” In order to fit within this exception, a plaintiff must establish the following 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.

The court held that plaintiff failed to satisfy this standard, and that the trial court should therefore have dismissed the complaint:

[T]he complaint fails to allege any facts tending to show that there was any “direct contact” between the decedent and the defendants or that there was any “justifiable reliance” on any promise made to the decedent by the defendants. Accordingly, the complaint does not state facts rom which it could be found that there was a special relationship between the decedent and the defendants necessary to assert a negligence cause of action against the defendants. In the absence of any allegation of such a relationship, the complaint cannot state a viable cause of action against the City based on its alleged negligence in failing to send an ambulance to the decedent’s home.

Furthermore, under the circumstances of this case, the allegations in the complaint that the defendants were negligent in preparing for and responding to the subject snowstorm, like the allegation regarding the 911 emergency response, also implicate the exercise of a governmental function. The defendants are similarly immune from liability in connection with their exercise of such function in the absence of a special relationship, which was not sufficiently pleaded.

It also held that the trial court should have denied plaintiff leave to serve a proposed amended complaint.  Plaintiff’s proposed amended complaint “was palpably insufficient since, even if the additional allegations were considered and accepted as true, there was no basis for concluding that they sufficiently alleged facts from which it could be found that a special relationship was somehow created between the defendants and the decedent.”

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