Was There Liability for Subsequent Injury to Passenger?
The police stop a car full of high school students. They arrest the driver for possession of marijuana and release the car to one of the passengers whose license does not permit him to drive with an underage passenger. An accident ensues. The underage passenger is injured and sues the police. Are the department and the officers liable for the injury?
Cody Stevens was injured in a single-vehicle accident that occurred on January 12, 2015, when schools were not in session because of inclement weather. The car was occupied by a group of high school-aged teenagers. Shortly before the accident, Police Officers Alexander Humphreys and Dennis Mullaney stopped the vehicle and, after arresting the driver and one of the passengers for possession of marijuana, released the car to Kevin C. Tatavitto.
Tatavitto had a Class DJ driver’s license which did not permit him to operate a vehicle with more than one passenger who was under the age of 21 and not a family member. At the time of the accident, Tatavitto was operating the vehicle with two passengers, including Stevens, both of whom were under the age of 21. The accident occurred after the vehicle stopped, when the car skidded on a patch of slush or ice and hit a tree.
Stevens sued the Town of East Fishkill Police Department, the Town of East Fishkill, Officers Humphreys and Mullaney, the vehicle owner, and Tatavitto. The Town defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and all cross-claims insofar as asserted against them. Supreme Court denied the motion. The Town, the Police Department the Police Officers appealed.
Departments– such as the Town of East Fishkill Police Department– do not have a legal identity separate and apart from the municipality. Thus, cannot independently sue or be sued. Accordingly, Supreme Court should have granted that branch of the Town defendants’ motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and all cross-claims insofar as asserted against the Town of East Fishkill Police Department.
However, Supreme Court otherwise properly denied the Town defendants’ motion. Even assuming that the Town defendants established that the officers were engaged in a governmental function when they entrusted the care to Tatavitto, they failed to establish, prima facie, that the officers did not owe Stevens a special duty; that the officers’ actions were discretionary, meaning conduct involving the exercise of reasoned judgment; and that Stevens did not have a viable cause of action sounding in negligent entrustment.
Under these circumstances, a special duty has 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
(4) That party’s justifiable reliance on the municipality’s affirmative conduct
Here, there was direct contact between the officers and the occupants of the car. The Town defendants failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether the officers, through their affirmative acts, assumed an affirmative duty to Stevens; whether the officers had reason to believe that releasing the vehicle to Tatavitto would permit him to drive the vehicle in violation of law, which increased the risk of an accident; and whether their conduct “lulled” Stevens into a false sense of security and induced him either to relax his own vigilance or forgo other avenues of protection—which the officers did not offer—and thereby placed him in a worse position than he would have been had the officers never assumed any duty to him.
Nor did the Town defendants establish, prima facie, that the officers’ actions were not a proximate cause of Stevens’ injuries. They failed to eliminate triable issues of fact as to whether the officers’ entrustment of the car to Tatavitto under the circumstances presented was a substantial cause of the events which produced his injury.
The Town defendants failed to demonstrate, prima facie, that the Town, Humphreys, and Mullaney were entitled to judgment as a matter of law. So Supreme Court properly denied those branches of the Town defendants’ motion for summary judgment dismissing the complaint and all cross-claims insofar as asserted against the Town, Humphreys, and Mullaney.