Summary of DeLong v. County of Erie
Citation: 60 N.Y.2d 296 (1983)
Relevant Facts: Dennis DeLong brought this wrongful death suit against the City of Buffalo and the County of Erie following the death of his wife, Amalia DeLong. Erie County set up an emergency call response program wherein all calls in the country were routed through a central location and then directed to the appropriate department, whether in the City of Buffalo or one of the outlying communities. Amalia DeLong lived with her husband in the small community of Kenmore, New York just outside of Buffalo. One morning, Amalia saw a burglar attempting to gain entry into her home and called 911. The call was routed to the emergency call center administered by the County and run in the Buffalo police department. Amalia told the complaint writer that answer the call that a burglar was at her home and requested police be sent to the scene, relaying her address as 319 Victoria. The complaint writer, in violation of policy, failed to clarify what municipality she was calling from or repeat back the address. Believing the caller was on Victoria Avenue in Buffalo sent the request to a dispatcher requesting officers at that location. Responding officers reported that there was no such address. Again violating policy, the complaint writer failed to notify the supervising lieutenant of the situation or search for an alternative address in Buffalo or the surrounding communities. Several minutes after calling 911, Amalia ran from her home bleeding, collapsed on the sidewalk, and was pronounced dead a few minutes later. At trial, Dennis De Long argued that Erie County had voluntarily adopted a special system for emergency calls to protect individuals such as his wife, and that negligent failure to adhere to policies under that system had caused his wife to rely on the complaint writer’s assurance that help was on the way. At trial, the jury found in favor of De Long and awarded damages for suffering before death and wrongful death. On appeal, the Court unanimously affirmed as to liability but divided over the issue of damages due to the loss of housewife services, ultimately affirming on that issue as well.
Issue: Does voluntary adoption of an emergency call system subject a municipality to liability for negligent failure in the operation of the system adopted? Is the use of expert testimony appropriate to establish the fair market value of lost services from a deceased housewife?
Holding: Yes, voluntary adoption of an emergency call system may subject a county or municipality to liability for negligence in operating the system where a special duty is created to the plaintiff. Yes, use of expert testimony is appropriate to establish appropriate value for housewife services and the loss thereof in this wrongful death action.
Reasoning: Judge Wachtler delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. The majority explained that while municipalities may not be held liable for negligence in the performance of a governmental function, here there was a special service provided and government agents had contact with the victim. As the Court explained, municipalities are free to devote police resources as they see fit, and are not liable for every crime committed by a third party. However, here the decedent sought assistance from a voluntarily undertaken system that encouraged members of the public to avail themselves of the protections provided. Furthermore, the decedent was assured that help was on the way. Here, the local police station was less than a mile away and the Court pointed out that the decedent may have taken further action to protect herself but for the assurances of the complaint writer that officers were on the way to assist her. Having voluntarily adopted a system for providing emergency call services, the County (and City as contracted under the program) was required to exercise ordinary care in the administration of the program. The County here voluntarily assumed a duty, and with regard to the decedent provided assurances that may have encouraged her to not seek other protection, thereby creating a duty to her to exercise ordinary care in providing the assistance offered. Breach of the special duty created is a fact-dependent inquiry properly for the jury. Here, the jury could have reasonably concluded that both defendants failed to exercise proper care. The Court affirmed as to liability, concluding that a special duty was owed and the issue of breach was properly decided by the jury. As to expert testimony, the Court explained that expert testimony is within the discretion of the trial court, and is generally allowable where it will aid the jury in understanding a fact at issue that calls for professional or technical knowledge. While the jury may have had common knowledge regarding the role of a housewife, they may have had trouble assigning monetary value to the ordinary tasks performed. Furthermore, expert testimony here may have assisted the jury in understanding that tasks undertaken without financial reward nonetheless have ascertainable value. Accordingly, the Court concluded that expert testimony to assist the jury in determining damages was appropriate in this case.
Conclusion: Municipalities that voluntarily undertake special services for their citizens may be liable for negligence in administering the duties undertaken where a special relationship is owed to the plaintiff. Expert testimony regarding damages is appropriate to assist the jury in assigning value to the role performed by a housewife.