Coleson v. City of New York

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This appeal stems from a negligence suit against the City of New York and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and addresses what evidence is necessary to establish that a special relationship existed between an individual and a municipality that would require the municipality to exercise a duty of reasonable care.

The plaintiff in this case, Jandy Coleson, had suffered verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her husband for years and had obtained several orders of protection against him. On June 23, 2004, plaintiff’s estranged husband attempted to force himself into her building and threatened to stab and kill her with the screwdriver he was carrying. Plaintiff called the NYPD, but when they arrived, Coleson had fled. After searching for him with plaintiff’s assistance, Coleson was apprehended the following morning. Plaintiff and her son were transported to the precinct where an Officer Reyes told her that Coleson had been arrested and “was going to be in prison for a while.” Reyes also told plaintiff she was going to be given protection. Plaintiff and her son were then taken to Safe Horizon, a non-profit domestic abuse victims’ organization. Later that evening, plaintiff received a telephone call from Officer Reyes, in which she was told that Coleson “was in front of the judge” and that “everything was okay.” Two days later, while picking her son up from school, plaintiff was approached by Coleson, who proceeded to stab her in the back with a knife. Plaintiff’s seven-year-old son was placed in a broom closet by an employee of the car wash across the street from the school, and upon coming out, witnessed his mother lying in a pool of blood.

On behalf of her and her son, plaintiff commenced a negligence suit against the City of New York and the NYPD, also asserting a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress. The City moved for summary judgment, arguing that Reyes’ statements were not definite enough to create justifiable reliance in order to establish a special relationship in satisfaction of the duty prong of plaintiff’s negligence claim. Plaintiff argued a special duty existed based on the NYPD’s agreement to provide protection to her. The Supreme Court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment and the Appellate Division, First Department affirmed, saying the statements “were too vague to constitute promises giving rise to a duty of care.”

The Court determined that there was sufficient evidence to conclude plaintiff raised a triable issue of fact as to whether a special relationship existed. The court emphasized that the “injured party’s reliance is . . . critical,” and also that in applying the factors set out in Cuffy v. City of New York, a jury could reasonably find for plaintiff. The Court also distinguished this case from a previous case relied on by the Appellate Division, stating that conduct of the police here was more substantial, involved, and interactive than the police conduct in Valdez v. City of New York. The case was remitted to the Appellate Division, First Department to be modified in accordance with the opinion.

The dissent objected on the grounds that opening up municipalities to tort liability in domestic abuse cases is a slipper slope that will lead to police officers giving as little information as possible to victims in order to avoid civil liability.

999 N.Y.S.2d 810 (N.Y. 2014)

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