Lauer v. City of New York (N.Y. 2000)

Procedural History: Plaintiff brought several claims dismissed by the trial court. The Appellate Court affirmed the dismissals, except for the claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress, reinstated by a divided court. Plaintiff contends the City should be liable for the Medical Examiner’s ministerial negligence, while defendant urges the complaint be dismissed.

Facts: Three-year-old Andrew Lauer died and a NYC Medical Examiner performed an autopsy, stating that the child’s death was a homicide caused by “blunt injuries” to the neck and brain. The report indicated that the brain was being preserved for further examination, but the following day a death certificate was issued stating that Andrew’s death was a homicide. The police began investigations, focusing primarily on plaintiff, Andrew’s father. Weeks later, the Medical Examiner and a neuropathologist conducted a more detailed study and indicated that a ruptured brain aneurysm caused the child’s death. The Medical Examiner failed to correct the autopsy report or death certificate and failed to notice law enforcement. Meanwhile, the police department’s investigation continued for 17 months until a newspaper published that the autopsy findings were revised and an amended death certificate was prepared.

Issue: Can a citizen recover damages against a municipality for its employee’s negligence?

Rules: Municipalities long ago surrendered common law tort immunity for the negligence of their employees.

Application: We do not agree that a ministerial breach by a governmental employee necessarily gives rise to municipal liability. Rather, a ministerial wrong “merely removes the issue of governmental immunity from a given case.” Without a duty running directly to the injured party, there can be no liability in damages, however careless the conduct or foreseeable the harm. To sustain liability against a municipality the duty breached must be more than that owed the public generally.

Conclusion: Because plaintiff cannot point to a duty owed to him by the Medical Examiner, his negligence claim must fail.

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