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Supreme Court Decision in Wrongful Death Action Against the City of New York Partially Reversed by Appellate Division

June 8, 2020 • Posted By Maria Stamatelatos • Insurance Coverage

On May 27, 2020, the Appellate Division, Second Department decided the matter of Owens v. New York, 2020 Slip Op 03019 (2d Dept. 2020). In this matter, the family of 18-year-old Khiel Coppin, who was fatally shot by members of the New York City Police Department, brought an action to recover damages for wrongful death against the City of New York. In addition to the wrongful death suit, plaintiff sought to recover damages for violations of the decedent’s constitutional and civil rights pursuant to 42 USC § 1983 based on the alleged use of excessive force and a violation of 42 USC § 1983 based on the deprivation of her right to family association. The defendants moved for summary judgment dismissing the complaint, and the Supreme Court granted the motion. Plaintiff appeals.

The Appellate Division affirmed the Supreme Court’s determination granting the branch of the defendants’ motion for summary judgment dismissing the wrongful death cause of action as alleged that defendants failed to follow the City’s Police Department Patrol Guide. The Appellate Division stated that “the common-law doctrine of governmental immunity … shield[s] public parties from liability for discretionary act[s] taken during the performance of governmental actions.” Valdez v. City of New York, 18 NY3d 69. The Court found that the City established, prima facie, that it was entitled to the governmental immunity defense with evidence that the alleged negligent acts involved the exercise of discretionary authority and they were not in violation of any clear Patrol Guide mandate.

However, the Appellate Division disagreed with the lower court’s determination that the defendant officers’ were not negligent in using deadly physical force. The Court reasoned that the City may not rely on the defense of governmental immunity because the defendant officers’ actions, if negligent, would be in violation of the Patrol Guide’s prohibition against the use of deadly physical force, and therefore, not discretionary. Thus, the Court found that the part of defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing so much of the wrongful death cause of action asserted against the City as alleged that the defendant officers were negligent in using deadly physical force should have been denied.

Finally, the Court found that the provision granting the branch of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment dismissing so much of the cause of action alleging a violation of 42 USC § 1983 asserted against the officer defendants as was based on the alleged use of excessive force by those defendants other than for the “number of shots fired” should have been denied.

For more information, please contact Maria E. Stamatelatos at mstamatelatos@frenchcasey.com