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Lauer v. City of New York

    Brief Fact Summary.

    After initially concluding that Lauer’s (Plaintiff) son was the victim of homicide, the New York City (Defendant) Medical Examiner realized the death was from natural causes but never changed the autopsy report or death certificate or notified the law enforcement officers investigating Plaintiff for homicide.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    In order for a municipality to be liable, the duty that was breached must be more than just the duty a municipality generally owes to the public.

    Facts.

    After Plaintiff’s three year-old son died, the New York City Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy. The autopsy report classified the death as a homicide and law enforcement began an investigation in which Plaintiff was the chief suspect. The Medical Examiner later learned that the boy had died of a ruptured brain aneurysm, but did not correct the autopsy report or the death certificate or notify law enforcement. Plaintiff sued for negligent infliction of emotional distress suffered as a result of the Medical Examiner’s negligence in these administrative matters. The trial court dismissed all claims on the basis of governmental tort immunity, but the appellate court reinstated the claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.

    Issue.

    In order for a municipality to be liable, must the duty that was breached be more than the duty generally owed to the public?

    Held.

    (Kaye, C.J.) Yes. In order for a municipality to be liable, the duty that was breached must be more than just the duty a municipality generally owes to the public. The statute requiring accurate record keeping was not passed for the benefit of Plaintiff. Members of the general public do not have a cause of action against municipalities performing public functions unless there exists a separate duty to use due care for the benefit of a particular person or class of people. The Medical Examiner did not owe Plaintiff any specific duty of care. Reversed.

    Dissent.

    (Smith, J.) Plaintiff has made a prima facie showing of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

    (Bellacosa, J.) Providing tort immunity for the kind of misconduct alleged here rewards government officials who hide the truth and ignore wrongdoings.

    Discussion.

    Plaintiff did not have standing to sue because he was not a member of the class protected by the statute. Plaintiff also could not demonstrate that the Medical Examiner owed him a duty of care based upon a special relationship above being a member of the general public. The Medical Examiner did not take any action on Plaintiff’s behalf that would have created such a relationship.



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