Is a halfway house liable for a former resident’s crimes?

August 12, 2016 | By DEBORAH LA FETRA

Sean Velentzas resided at Queens Village Committee for Mental Health for Jamaica Community Adolescent Program as an alternative to incarceration. He violated the facility’s rules by drinking alcohol and assaulting another resident. Queens Village told him that, as a consequence, he was being discharged from the program. When Velentzas became enraged by his expulsion, Queens Village staff called the police, who escorted Velentzas off the premises and released him. He then went to his grandmother’s house and violently assaulted Anthony Oddo, his mother’s boyfriend. Oddo sued Queens Village for negligence. After an intermediate appellate court issued a split decision holding that Queens Village had a duty to protect Oddo from Velentzas, the New York Court of Appeals (the state’s highest court) agreed to hear the case.

PLF filed an amicus brief in Oddo v. Queens Village, agreeing with the dissenting judge below, who noted that “facilities cannot properly be saddled with a duty to protect the general public from a discharged resident on the theory that he may possibly become violent toward some unknown third party after leaving the facility.” New York, like other states, recognizes only a very limited tort duty to protect the general public from criminal acts. The law recognizes a duty when the defendant has authority to control the actions of such third persons, and public policy dictates that this exception to the general rule be construed narrowly. Queens Village should not have a duty based on its former control of occupants who have since left the premises in a manner authorized by law. Moreover, public policy supports alternatives for incarceration under some circumstances. If alternative treatment facilities can be liable to the general public for criminal actions of properly discharged former residents, the government will be able to afford fewer such facilities, contrary to New York’s public policy.