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How A Municipality In NY Can Be Held Liable For Failing To Protect You

New York's courts have long held that a municipality or municipal agency, such as the New York City school system, can't be held legally responsible for failing to protect any particular citizen unless there is a "special" relationship between that individual and the municipality.

But what does that mean?

Back in 1987, in one of the seminal cases that addressed this topic, Cuffy v. City of New York, New York's Court of Appeals articulated this rule as follows:

"As a general rule, a municipality may not be held liable for injuries resulting from a simple failure to provide police protection ... This rule is derived from the principle that a municipality's duty to provide police protection is ordinarily one owed to the public at large and not to any particular individual or class of individuals. Additionally, a municipality's provision of police protection to its citizenry has long been regarded as a resource-allocating function that is better left to the discretion of the policy makers (see, Weiner v. Metropolitan Transp. Auth., 55 N.Y.2d 175, 448 N.Y.S.2d 141, 433 N.E.2d 124, supra). Consequently, we have generally declined to hold municipalities subject to tort liability for their failure to furnish police protection to individual citizens.

"There exists, however, 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 ( De Long v. County of Erie, 60 N.Y.2d 296, 304, 469 N.Y.S.2d 611, 457 N.E.2d 717; see, e.g., Sorichetti v. City of New York, supra; Florence v. Goldberg, supra; Schuster v. City of New York, 5 N.Y.2d 75, 180 N.Y.S.2d 265, 154 N.E.2d 534). 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.

Even a quick review of the subsequent cases applying this rule leaves no doubt that the Courts have construed the "special duty" exception very narrowly indeed; the vast majority of these cases are dismissed.