May 30, 2018

Concerning the fellow-servant rule, the doctrine of vicarious liability and the doctrine of respondeat superior in New York State


Concerning the fellow-servant rule, the doctrine of vicarious liability and the doctrine of respondeat superior in New York State
Buckley v City Of New York, 56 N.Y.2d 300
[Decided with Lawrence v City of New York]

These cases essentially involved the question of whether the fellow-servant rule continues to apply in New York. 

In each of these cases an employee of the City of New York, who was injured through the negligence of a coworker brought an action against the City. 

In Buckley v City of New York, a police officer was accidentally shot in the leg when a gun being loaded by a fellow officer discharged in the station house locker room. 

In Lawrence v City of New York, a fire fighter was seriously injured when a fellow fire fighter threw a smouldering couch from the second story window of a fire-damaged building and struck the plaintiff while he was standing in the yard.

In each case the plaintiff secured a jury verdict of liability against the city on a theory of vicarious liability and the city's motion to dismiss the complaint on the basis of the fellow-servant rule was denied. The Appellate Division affirmed the judgments in both instances and leave has been granted to appeal to this court. The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division's ruling.

The doctrine of  rule of respondeat superior holds that the employer will be liable to third parties for torts of an employee committed within the scope of his or her employment.

In contrast, the fellow-servant rule is triggered in the event an employee is injured by a fellow employee in the workplace. The injured worker will have no recourse against the employer in respondeat superiorand the rule provides that "where a servant is injured through the negligence or fault of a fellow servant, engaged in a common business and employment ... if the master is himself free from fault, the master is not responsible for the injury."

The Court of Appeals observed that "The over-all effect of the fellow-servant rule was drastically curtailed by the advent of workers' compensation legislation," concluding that "Today we are squarely presented with the question left open in Poniatowski — whether the fellow-servant rule is to survive in New York." Continuing, the court opined that "The rule had its birth in the 19th century, was severely crippled with the advent of workers' compensation, and was dealt an almost fatal blow in this State in Poniatowski v City of New York, 14 N.Y.2d 76."

With these decisions the court said it rejected "this rule entirely [and] inter its remains," explaining "The fellow-servant rule serves no continuing valid purpose in New York, but instead merely works an unjustifiable hardship upon individuals injured in the workplace, and we must thus conclude that the fellow-servant rule is no longer to be followed in New York."

The Buckley decision is posted on the Internet at:

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