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September 09, 2010

Public entities are immune from negligence claims arising out of the performance of its governmental functions absent proof of a special relationship

Public entities are immune from negligence claims arising out of the performance of its governmental functions absent proof of a special relationship
Zeitlin v NYC Board of Education, NYS Supreme Court [Not selected for publication in the Official Reports]

Pupils assaulting teachers has become an occupational hazard in a number of school districts. What is a school district’s liability if a student assaults a teacher?

In the Zeitlin case New York State Supreme Court Justice Solomon considered a schoolteacher’s demand for compensatory and punitive damages based on his school district’s alleged failure to protect him from student assaults.

Citing Miller v State of New York, 62 NY2d 506, Justice Solomon described the basic law in such situations as follows:

Public entities are immune from negligence claims arising out of the performance of their governmental functions unless the injured person establishes a special relationship with that entity underlying a specific duty to protect that individual and reliance on the performance of that duty by the individual.

What is involved in establishing such a “specific duty?” According to the ruling, such a duty comes into being only where all four of the following elements are satisfied:

1. Assumption: An assumption by a municipality or municipal agency, through promises or actions, of an affirmative duty to act on behalf of the party who was injured;

2. Knowledge: Knowledge on the part of the municipality’s agents that inaction could lead to harm;

3. Direct Contact: Direct contact between the municipality’s agents and the injured party; and

4. Justifiable reliance: The injured party’s justifiable reliance on the municipality’s undertaking.

In the Zeitlin case the Court concluded that although providing security against physical attack from third parties was a governmental function, “Zeitlin fails to meet the first element [assumption] of a claimed special duty of protection and for that reason alone, his claim must fail” and dismissed his complaint. In other words, Zeitlin was unable to demonstrate a critical element -- that the District has assumed any responsibility for his safety at the work site.

This “four element” test is not usually applied in cases involving the safety of students, however. As the Appellate Division said in Foster v New Berlin Central School District, 246 AD2d 880, “school districts are under a duty to adequately supervise students in their care and will be liable for foreseeable injuries proximately related to the absence of adequate supervision.”

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