Municipalities long ago surrendered common law tort immunity for the negligence of their employees. A distinction is drawn, however, between discretionary and ministerial governmental acts. A public employee's discretionary acts--meaning conduct involving the exercise of reasoned judgment--may not result in the municipality's liability even when the conduct is negligent. By contrast, ministerial acts--meaning conduct requiring adherence to a governing rule, with a compulsory result--may subject the municipal employer to liability for negligence.
After plaintiff's three-year-old son died, one of the city's medical examiners performed an autopsy and prepared a report stating that the death was a homicide caused by "blunt injuries" to the neck and brain. The police began to investigate plaintiff. Weeks later, a more detailed study indicated that a ruptured brain aneurysm caused the child's death, but the medical examiner failed to correct the death certificate or notify law enforcement. Plaintiff sued the city, alleging defamation, violation of his civil rights, and both negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Appellate Division held that plaintiff could maintain a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress based on ministerial acts of one of the city's medical examiners. The city appealed the order with the Court of Appeals of New York.
Can the state be liable for emotional distress based on ministerial acts of one of the city's medical examiners?
The court reversed the order of the Appellate Division because plaintiff's claim was not supported by existing law, and the court could not agree that the proposed enlargement of the orbit of duty, resting largely on the foreseeability of harm, was a sound one. The court also found that the city owed no duty to the plaintiff.