New York's Special Duty Law in 2013-2014
• New York State Navigation Law Does Note Create a Special Duty Owed by State to Passengers Aboard Vessel Inspected by State Employees
In Metz, the Court of Appeals examined New York State Navigation Law to hold that a statutory obligation requiring that public vessels be given a certificate of inspection does not create a special duty of care owed by the State to its passengers.
The Ethan Allen (the “vessel”) was a public vessel operating as a tour boat on Lake George. In 2005, 20 passengers were killed and several others were injured when the boat capsized and sank. As a public vessel, the Ethan Allen had been subject to yearly state inspections by the United States Coast Guard, when the vessel was constructed in 1964; and then by the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (OPRHP) between 1979 and 2005. At the time the vessel sank, it had been carrying 47 passengers and 1 crew member, within the 48-passenger maximum set forth in the certificate of inspection.
The Court of Appeals discussed briefly the history of the vessel’s prior inspections by the U.S. Coast Guard and the OPRHP, recognizing that the 48-passenger limit certified by state inspectors was much higher than the level which the vessel could safely be operated.
The Court of Claims found insufficient evidence to allow it to determine whether the inspections were proprietary or governmental in nature and denied the claimant’s motion to dismiss the State’s affirmative defense of sovereign immunity. The Appellate Division reversed on the issue of sovereign immunity and dismissed that affirmative defense It also found that the inspections were a governmental function; and it granted the State’s motion for leave to appeal its decision on the State’s affirmative defense of sovereign immunity.
In its decision, the Court of Appeals relied on last year’s Survey case, Valdez v. City of New York, which recognized that claimants must make a threshold showing of the existence of a special duty owed to them by the State before it becomes necessary to address whether the State can rely upon the defense of governmental immunity. The Court looked at the statutory scheme at issue here, New York’s Navigation Law, to determine that the statutory obligations of inspecting the subject vessel did not create a special duty of care.
In reaching this decision, the Court looked at its decision in the 1983 case of O’Connor v. City of New York, where the City’s inspector either failed to observe a defect in the gas piping system or failed to insist that such defect be corrected before certifying that the system satisfied the applicable building department rules and regulations. This case, the Court held, was similar to the Metz case because while the statutory regulations were intended to benefit the specific plaintiffs in this case, the regulation was also intend, more broadly, to protect all members of the general public similarly situated and therefore did not create a duty to particular individuals. Moreover, the Court recognized that the Legislature never intended for New York’s Navigation Law to provide for governmental immunity, but instead was meant to allow for fines and criminal penalties to be imposed upon vessel owners and operators.
• Ranger was Engaged in Governmental Activity When Assisting Claimant in Backing Out of Driveway and Onto Highway.
Claimant commenced this negligence action against the State of New York alleging that the State’s employee, a ranger for the Department of Environmental Conservation, was negligent in guiding the claimant’s vehicle onto the highway and into the path of an oncoming vehicle. The Court of Claims dismissed the claim, concluding that, at the time of the accident, the ranger was performing a governmental function within the exercise of his discretion and, as such, defendant was immune from liability. Claimant appealed.
Crediting claimant’s proof, it is apparent that the unidentified ranger was engaged in traffic control or regulation, which is a classic example of a governmental function undertaken for the protection and safety of the public pursuant to the general police powers., thus placing the ranger’s asserted negligence well within the immunized governmental realm of municipal responsibility.
As to whether the ranger was engaged in a discretionary or ministerial act at the time of the collision, the case law makes it clear that a discretionary or quasi-judicial act involves the exercise of reasoned judgment which could typically produce different acceptable results whereas a ministerial act envisions direct adherence to a governing rule or standard with a compulsory result. Government action, if discretionary, may not be a basis for liability, while ministerial actions may be, but only if they violate a special duty owed to the plaintiff, apart from any duty to the public in general. Simply put, traffic control is an inherently discretionary act.
All that remains for the Court’s consideration is whether the record as a whole contains sufficient proof that the ranger did in fact exercise discretion/reasoned judgment when assisting claimant in backing out of the driveway. Claimant’s own testimony reveals that the ranger exercised discretion in assisting him. Specifically, claimant testified that when he first started backing out of the driveway, the ranger was standing on the south shoulder of the highway. As claimant continued to back up, the ranger moved to the middle of the road and, by claimant’s own admission, looked both east and west as he continued to motion claimant out of the driveway. Notably, claimant acknowledged the ranger was being cautious about what was coming from the direction of Danamora. Such testimony is more than sufficient to establish that the ranger was engaged in a governmental function involving the actual exercise of discretionary authority and, as such, the lower court correctly concluded that defendant was immune from liability.
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