FDNY Prevails in Elevator Rescue Suit Based On Special Duty Rule

The New York Supreme Court Appellate Division has upheld the dismissal of the City of New York and the FDNY from a lawsuit filed by a person injured during an elevator emergency in 2014. Daniel Ortiz filed suit claiming he injured his knee when a stalled elevator he was in dropped several feet during rescue efforts. The suit named the city and FDNY as well as the building owner and the elevator service company.

According to the decision:

  • On July 23, 2014, the plaintiff was in a moving elevator in the Brooklyn Tabernacle when the elevator came to a stop.
  • After the New York City Fire Department responded to a 911 call regarding the elevator, the elevator dropped suddenly, without warning.
  • The elevator then came to an abrupt stop, allegedly injuring the plaintiff’s knee.
  • The plaintiff commenced this personal injury action against the City of New York, Comptroller of the City of New York, New York City Fire Department, Brooklyn Tabernacle, and Prestige Elevator, Inc., the elevator maintenance company.
  • The City defendants moved … to dismiss the complaint insofar as asserted against them.
  • When a plaintiff commences a negligence action against a municipality, “a court must [first] decide whether the municipal entity was engaged in a proprietary function or acted in a governmental capacity at the time the claim arose”.
  • “If the municipality’s actions fall on the proprietary side, it is subject to suit under the ordinary rules of negligence applicable to nongovernmental parties”  
  • “If it is determined that a municipality was exercising a governmental function, the next inquiry focuses on the extent to which the municipality owed a special duty’ to the injured party.”
  • “The core principle is that to sustain liability against a municipality, the duty breached must be more than that owed the public generally.”
  • “It is the plaintiff’s obligation to prove that the government defendant owed a special duty of care to the injured party because duty is an essential element of the negligence claim itself.”
  • “In situations where the plaintiff fails to meet this burden, the analysis ends and liability may not be imputed to the municipality that acted in a governmental capacity”. If a plaintiff “cannot overcome the threshold burden of demonstrating that defendant owed the requisite duty of care, there will be no occasion to address whether defendant can avoid liability by relying on the governmental function immunity defense”.
  • The special duty rule “operates independently of the governmental function immunity defense, which precludes liability even when all elements of a negligence claim—including duty—have been proved”
  • Here, the City defendants were acting in a governmental capacity when the plaintiff was injured during the firefighters’ rescue operation.
  • Because the plaintiff concedes that the City defendants owed him no special duty of care, “the analysis ends and liability may not be imputed to the” City defendants.
  • Furthermore, because the plaintiff “cannot overcome the threshold burden” regarding a special duty, we have “no occasion to address” the plaintiff’s argument that the City defendants were not entitled to a defense of governmental function immunity.

The ruling has no impact on the remaining defendants in the case. Here is a copy of the decision:

Note: The special duty rule as explained by the Appellate Division is also referred to in other jurisdictions as the public duty doctrine. It offers broad liability protections to fire departments.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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