Law School Case Brief
Cuffy v. New York - 69 N.Y.2d 255, 513 N.Y.S.2d 372, 505 N.E.2d 937 (1987)
As a general rule, a municipality may not be held liable for injuries resulting from a simple failure to provide police protection. Consequently, the court has generally declined to hold municipalities subject to tort liability for their failure to furnish police protection to individual citizens.
Plaintiffs' injuries originated in a landlord-tenant dispute between plaintiffs Joseph and Eleanor Cuffy, who occupied the upper apartment of their two-family house in The Bronx, and Joel and Barbara Aitkins, who had leased the ground-floor apartment from the Cuffys for approximately a year. Even before the incidents that are directly involved in this action, there had been episodes between the two couples which the police had been called to mediate. One evening, Joseph Cuffy went to the police precinct and specifically told a police lieutenant that he intended to move his family out of its upper floor apartment immediately if an arrest was not made. In response, the officer told Cuffy that he should not worry and that something would be done about the situation "first thing in the morning." However, despite the lieutenant assurances, the police did nothing. On the following evening, the Cuffys' son, plaintiff Ralston, who did not live with his parents, came to their house for a visit. Immediately after Ralston alit from his car, Joel Aitkins accosted him and the two men had an altercation, which culminated in Ralston's being struck with a baseball bat. Eleanor Cuffy, who observed the fight from her upstairs window, and another son, Cyril, rushed to Ralston's rescue. Barbara Aitkins then joined in the attack, slashing at both Eleanor and Cyril with a knife. Joseph Cuffy, who had come home from work, arrived at the scene while the fight was in progress, but was not in time to avert the harm. By the time the fight was over, all three Cuffys, plaintiffs Eleanor, Cyril and Ralston Cuffy, filed this action against the City, alleging that the police had a "special duty" to protect them because of the promise that the police lieutenant had made on the night preceding the incident. The ensuing trial ended in a verdict awarding each of the plaintiffs substantial damages. The City appealed to the Appellate Division, which unanimously affirmed the judgment, without opinion. Defendant City sought further review.
Were the municipal police officers liable for breach of duty for their failure to provide police protection?
The New York Court of Appeals held that (1) Ralston, the son had no "direct contact" with the police because the assurances received by the police were not obtained on Ralston's behalf because he did not live in the household and he was unaware of the promise; and (2) Eleanor and Cyril Cuffy, the mother and son who did reside in the house could not have justifiably relied upon the police's promise because by midday, it was apparent that the police had not kept their promise in arresting the neighbor, yet the Cuffys still remained at the house. The Court found that any justifiable reliance had dissipated after it was apparent that the police had not kept their promise.
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