Citation. Riss v. New York, 22 N.Y.2d 579 (N.Y. 1968)
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Brief Fact Summary.
The Appellate Division of the Supreme Court in the First Judicial Department (New York) affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of Linda Riss’ (Appellant) complaint alleging that New York (Respondent) was liable for its failure to protect Appellant. Appellant contested the order.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
The court refused to hold the government liable, in the absence of legislation, or to carve out an area of tort liability for police protection to members of the public.
Appellant had been terrorized for months by a rejected suitor, a man named Pugach. This involved threats of serious injury and death. Appellant consistently sought the protection of police. She eventually became engaged to another man, and during a party celebrating her engagement, the rejected suitor called her threatening that it was her “last chance.” She contacted police again, but they did not act. Pugach hired an assailant to throw lye into Appellant’s face. She was blinded in one eye, lost most of her sight in the other, and her face was permanently disfigured. She brought an action against the police department for failing to protect her. The trial court dismissed her action, and the Appellate division affirmed.
Was the city liable for its failure to provide special protection for a member of the public, who had been subject to constant threats, repeatedly requested such protection, and eventually suffered egregious harm when those threats were carried out?
No. The court cited policy considerations when it held that the protection afforded citizens is a general one, and it was not within the purview of the court to require police protection of the public.
Governmental immunity protects the government from tort liability.
Traditionally such immunities were complete and prevented any tort suits against the government. The general immunity provision at issue here is founded on policy considerations, or as the court put it, such immunity involved “the provision of a government service to protect the public generally from external hazards and particularly to control the activities of criminal wrongdoers (emphasis added).”
* A tertiary issue the court raised concerned the proper means by which the scope of public responsibility might be broadened in the context of rising crime and other societal problems. The court defers to the legislative process, specifically stating: “[t]o foist a presumed cure for these problems by judicial innovation of a new kind of liability in tort would be foolhardy indeed and an assumption of judicial wisdom and power not possessed by the courts.” Based on this rationale, the court concluded, “[t]here is no warrant in judicial tradition or in the proper allocation of the powers of government for the courts, in the absence of legislation, to carve out an area of tort liability for police protection to members of the public.”