BY JOEL GROSSBARTH
Anyone that has lived in Rockland County or the Hudson Valley region will recall the truly tragic case where Patricia Nigro was murdered by her boyfriend William T. Groesbeck in her home in Sloatsburg. Groesbeck then turned the gun on himself, committing suicide in October 2015. While murder/suicide cases usually don’t lead to a lawsuit, an appeals court in Brooklyn ruled that the Town of Ramapo and Ramapo Police Department may be held liable based upon the events that led up to the crime.
According to Patricia Nigro’s estate representatives, Nigro contacted the Town of Ramapo Police Department after Groesbeck physically assaulted her. The complaint alleged that members of the department responded to the couple’s Sloatsburg residence, where Nigro told the police that Groesbeck had assaulted her and that she feared for her life. Nigro allegedly notified the responding police officers that Groesbeck possessed a handgun. The complaint alleged that the officers confiscated Groesbeck’s handgun but did not arrest him.
The complaint alleged that the Police Department later learned that Groesbeck had been a police officer in New Jersey and they “illegally and irresponsibly returned” the handgun to Groesbeck even though he could not produce, and in fact did not have a license to possess the handgun in the State of New York. The complaint further alleged that on October 21, 2015, Groesbeck viciously beat Nigro, causing skull fractures and other internal injuries. Groesbeck then shot and killed Nigro with the same handgun that had been returned to him by the police department. After murdering Nigro, Groesbeck took his own life.
Patricia Nigro’s estate claimed that the Town, by virtue of the actions of the Town Police Department, was negligent in returning the handgun to Groesbeck. The complaint alleged that the Town Police Department did not have the legal authority to return the handgun to Groesbeck since he was not licensed to possess it in the State of New York. The complaint further alleged that Nigro had relied upon the fact that the department would comply with existing law.
The Town of Ramapo tried to dismiss the complaint. The Town argued that it did not owe Nigro a duty of care since there was no special relationship between her and the Town Police Department. The Town further contended that Groesbeck’s criminal acts were a superseding cause of Nigro’s death. Finally, the Town argued that the doctrine of governmental immunity shielded it from liability for the discretionary actions alleged in the complaint.
Initially, the Rockland County Supreme Court denied the Town’s motion. The Town appealed to the Appellate Division, Second Department in Brooklyn. On appeal, Ramapo argued that the Rockland Court did not consider the Town’s legal arguments and made an incorrect ruling. However, the appeals court held that a jury could reasonably conclude that Groesbeck’s use of the allegedly illegal handgun to harm Nigro was a foreseeable consequence of the situation created by the Town’s negligence. Accepting the facts alleged in the complaint as true, a reasonable jury could infer that the Town Police Department took possession of the handgun in order to protect Nigro against just such a risk of harm.
Furthermore, the evidence submitted by the Town in support of its motion failed to conclusively demonstrate, as a matter of law, that the Town’s alleged negligence was not a proximate cause of Nigro’s death.
While the appeals court did not grant the Town’s appeal and dismiss the lawsuit, it did hold that the Town’s claims were affirmative defenses, which a jury should consider and refused to dismiss the claims without a trial.