New York State Court of Claims

New York State Court of Claims

SANKARA v. THE STATE OF NEW YORK , #2001-028-0534, Claim No. 102035, Motion No. M-63054


Defendant’s motion to dismiss the claim of a motorist who was arrested because of erroneous information in Department of Motor Vehicles records is denied. The negligence involved is ministerial in nature, and to the extent Williams v State of New York (90 AD2d 861) can be read as holding that this situation can give rise only to a cause of action for negligent misrepresentation, it has been overruled by Ford Motor Credit Co. v State of New York (133 AD2d 980).

Case Information

1 1.The caption of this action is amended sua sponte to reflect the State of New York as the only properly named defendant.
Claimant short name:
Footnote (claimant name) :

Footnote (defendant name) :
The caption of this action is amended sua sponte to reflect the State of New York as the only properly named defendant.
Third-party claimant(s):

Third-party defendant(s):

Claim number(s):
Motion number(s):
Cross-motion number(s):

Claimant’s attorney:
Defendant’s attorney:
BY: Paul F. Cagino, Esq. Assistant Attorney General
Third-party defendant’s attorney:

Signature date:
June 5, 2001

Official citation:

Appellate results:

See also (multicaptioned case)


The following papers were read on defendant’s motion for an order of dismissal.

1. Notice of Motion and Supporting Affiirmation of Paul F. Cagino, with annexed Exhibits A-F, filed Feb. 6, 2001 (“Cagino affirmation”)

2. Affirmation in Opposition of Donald J. Yannella, with annexed Exhibits A-D, filed Mar. 30, 2001 (“Yanella affirmation”)

Filed papers: Claim, filed Mar. 1, 2000; Answer, filed April 13, 2000

Claimant alleges that as a result of negligent record-keeping by the State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) he was twice subjected to arrest and temporary incarceration on unfounded charges of aggravated unlicenced operation and unlicenced driving. Defendant has moved for summary judgment dismissing the claim,[2] contending that even if DMV’s records were inaccurate, the State cannot be held liable when DMV provides false information that results in a motorist’s arrest.

Claimant was arrested by the New York City Police Department on March 3 and March 12, 1999 after a search of DMV records revealed that his driver’s license was suspended. The suspension began in October 1998, because of an alleged lapse in the insurance on claimant’s automobile and his subsequent failure to surrender his registration certificate and license plates (V&TL §318.1[a]; Cagino affirmation, Exh C [“Order of Suspension or Revocation”]). According to claimant, his insurance never lapsed, and, in any event, any suspension should have been rescinded in September 1998 when he provided proof of coverage or, at the latest, in December 1998, when his insurance company sent written confirmation of coverage to DMV.

On or around August 4, 1998, DMV received from claimant’s insurer a notice indicating that his automobile insurance had lapsed.[3] Approximately a month later, in early September, DMV sent to claimant a letter of inquiry (Cagino affirmation, Exh A: sample letter), warning that his license could be suspended if he failed to provide proof of insurance. According to defendant, claimant never responded to this letter, and consequently he was sent a suspension notice (id., Exh B)[4] and, later, an indefinite suspension order (id, Exhs C). The suspension apparently was rescinded on March 22, 1999 (id, Exh D), after claimant personally went to a local DMV office and presented proof of his insurance (Cagino affirmation, ¶ 4).

According to claimant, however, he responded to DMV immediately after receiving the September 1998 letter by tearing off the bottom part of the letter, as instructed, and returning it along with a copy of his insurance card to DMV (Yannella affirmation, Exh C: deposition transcript, Ahmed Sankara). When he later received the Order of Suspension or Revocation in October 1998, claimant then contacted his insurance company and requested that they write to DMV. In a December 28, 1998 letter to DMV (Yannella affirmation, Exh D), the insurer, Integon, confirmed that claimant’s policy had gone into effect on July 8, 1998 and further stated: “The policy is currently in force. All cancellations to this date have been reinstated without a lapse.” To make sure that DMV received this information, claimant also sent a copy of the letter to the agency.

Although there are a number of significant, unresolved factual disputes, defendant’s position is that even if those were resolved in claimant’s favor, the State would not be liable in this situation, because a motorist who is arrested as a result of false information supplied by DMV does not have a viable cause of action for negligent misrepresentation. Claimant counters that the State is liable in these situations as long as the motorist’s injury results from the negligent performance of ministerial, as opposed to discretionary, acts.

At one time, the State was considered to be immune from liability with respect to any actions taken in carrying out a uniquely governmental function. In Williams v State of New York (90 AD2d 861), as in the instant claim, a motorist was arrested when a routine check with DMV indicated, erroneously, that his license had been suspended. Rejecting causes of action for constitutional violation and false imprisonment, the Third Department also dismissed a negligence claim [5] on the ground that the State’s actions in collecting, maintaining, and disseminating motor vehicle records are protected by sovereign immunity.
[T]he State is not liable for any act which is completely sovereign in nature and completely foreign to any activity which could be carried on by a private person. The State is authorized by statute through its Department of Motor Vehicles to collect, maintain and disseminate motor vehicle and operators’ records. No private person or entity is given this authority. Such activity is characteristic of a sovereign. The State’s actions in exercising this statutory power are sovereign in nature.
(Id, at 862 [citations omitted].) Following Williams, a number of other claims were dismissed on the ground that DMV record-keeping was a uniquely sovereign undertaking, although that ruling was often buttressed by other, alternative grounds for dismissal (see, e. g., Eagle Ins. Co. v State of New York, 131 Misc 2d 357 [immunity for purely governmental activity plus lack of causation]; Chung v State of New York, 122 Misc 2d 676 [immunity for purely governmental activity plus immunity for discretionary actions]).

In 1987, five years after Williams was decided, its holding was limited, if not entirely overturned, by the Third Department’s decision in Ford Motor Credit Co. v State of New York (133 AD2d 980). In that action, DMV negligently issued a certificate of title to the lessee of an automobile rather than to its owner. When the lessee subsequently sold the vehicle and stopped making payments under the lease agreement, the owner sued the State. In that instance, the State’s argument that DMV’s actions were protected by sovereign immunity was rejected:
[W]e reject the State’s suggestion that in Williams v State of New York (90 AD2d 861) this court created a blanket of sovereign immunity for all of the State’s motor vehicle record-keeping activity. Rather, as is evident from the cases cited in our decision,[6] the maintenance and dissemination of information concerning registrations and licenses for the use and operation of motor vehicles on State highways was found to be subject to sovereign immunity based upon the principle that “the State clearly has not waived its immunity for those acts of its agencies and employees, which are performed as part of its governmental function, involving the exercise of discretion or judgment of a quasi-judicial nature”

(Id, at 981, quoting Abruzzo v State of New York, 84 AD2d 876, 877.) Consquently, the holding of Williams (supra), as it has been limited by Ford Motor Credit Co. (supra), appears to be that the State is protected by sovereign immunity with respect to actions of its officers or employees that 1) involve a purely, or uniquely, governmental function and 2) are discretionary or quasi-judicial in nature (accord, Boland v State of New York, 161 Misc 2d 1019, 1028, affd 218 AD2d 235; Bell v State of New York, 140 Misc 2d 778, affd 154 AD2d 958, lv denied 75 NY2d 856).

Thus, as the Third Department stated in Ford Motor Credit Co.:

[When] the State seeks immunity from liability for the acts of its agency and employees, the issue is not merely whether those acts can be characterized as uniquely sovereign, but whether the acts constitute a governmental function involving the exercise of discretion.

(133 AD2d, at 981, citing Tango v Tulevech, 61 NY2d 34.) The Court notes that this approach is in agreement with the view developed in an entirely different line of cases dealing with the scope of the State’s waiver of immunity:

Weiss v Fote
[7 NY2d 579, rearg denied 8 NY2d 934] and its progeny have established the general New York rule that sovereign immunity has been waived with respect to ministerial aspects of governmental acts but not with respect to discretionary aspects of governmental acts.

(Gayle v State of New York,135 Misc 2d 570, 571.)

After Ford Motor Credit Co. (supra) established that at least in some instances the State could be liable for injury resulting from inaccurate DMV record-keeping, recovery has been permitted in a series of cases that are factually similar, although not identical, to that case. These are claims in which DMV’s error was failure to record a party’s lien interest on the motor vehicle certificate of title, allowing the vehicle’s owner to sell it to a purchaser-in-good-faith and default on the loan. As long as the claim is commenced in a timely fashion (see, Marine Midland Bank, N.A. v State of New York, 195 AD2d 871, lv denied 82 NY2d 661 [listing several possible accrual dates in these situations]), it is generally recognized that the lienor has a viable cause of action against the State and can recover the lesser of the balance due under the loan agreement or the market value of the vehicle (Primus Automotive Financial Services v State of New York, Ct Cl, Claim No. 99569, Collins, J., April 4, 2000, UID No. 2000-015-013).[7] Ordinary negligence principles are applied in these cases. For example, where the lienholder’s failure to file the appropriate forms with DMV caused the omission, and DMV employees had no independent duty to inquire into the existence of a lien from information contained on other forms, the State was not found to be liable (Chrysler Credit Corp. v State of New York, 262 AD2d 768).

Recovery has generally been denied in another group of cases whose factual situations are similar to that of Williams, claims in which a motorist is subjected to adverse action because law enforcement officers rely on incorrect information contained in DMV files. In Williams, as indicated, the claimant was arrested because the DMV check indicated his driver’s license had been suspended. In addition to holding that the State was immune from liability because of the State’s uniquely sovereign role activity – a holding, as noted above, that was subsequently limited or reinterpreted – the Third Department also stated:
[T]he negligence cause of action, in reality, is one for negligent misrepresentation although it is not denominated as such by claimant. One of the necessary elements in establishing such a cause of action is that claimant has relied upon information given to his detriment. In the matter at bar, claimant did not rely upon the State’s misrepresentation, the deputy sheriff did.

(90 AD2d 861, 862 [citations omitted].)

This statement has been interpreted as meaning that the State cannot be liable when the motorist’s injury is caused by the false information in DMV files being supplied to a third party. Although the claimant in Williams was detained for only a few hours, in Johnson (Kenneth) v State of New York (166 Misc 2d 333), the injury was much more significant. Claimant and his wife were stopped by customs agents at the Champlain Port of Entry as they returned from a trip to Canada. When DMV records indicated that his license had been suspended, he was arrested, handcuffed, taken before a town justice, and released on bail, and then, because he was unable to drive his car, the couple traveled on to Albany by bus. Claimant obtained documentation from a DMV office to confirm that his license was clear and then returned to Champlain to regain his car and bail money. His claim against the State was dismissed on the authority of Williams:
The rationale of the negligent misrepresentation aspect of the Williams holding was reaffirmed by the Third Department in Collins v Brown (129 AD2d 902, 904).[8] Since no authority has been provided indicating that the negligent misrepresentation facet of Williams has been overruled, this court is bound to follow precedent from the Appellate Division.

(166 Misc 2d at 340.) Identical results, based on identical reasoning, have been reached in a number of other claims: Johnson (Willie) v State of New York (Ct Cl, Claim No 101345, McNamara, J. June 15, 2000, UID 2000-011-537); Lombardo v State of New York (Claim No. 99954, Motion No. M-60183, Oct. 27, 1999, Collins, J); and Islam v State of New York (Motion No. M-58551, Mar. 25, 1999, Collins, J.).

In a more recent case, however, Judge McNamara declined to dismiss the claim of a motorist arrested because DMV records showed that his driver’s license had been suspended (Manolios v State of New York, Ct Cl, Claim No. 101223, McNamara, J., August 17, 2000, UID 2000-011-562]). In that action, there was evidence that the claimant had been notified of the suspension, had taken steps to correct the error, and was informed by DMV employees that “everything would be okay”. Judge McNamara concluded that a cause of action for negligent misrepresentation had been stated because claimant, as well as the arresting officer, had relied to his detriment on information from DMV. Because he was assured that the agency would take appropriate steps after being informed of the error, “he took no further action to resolve the problem.”

The situation presented in the instant claim more closely resembles that found in Manolios. Once claimant became aware of the suspension, he took steps as required by DMV to correct the information and, after receiving a second notice, he took additional steps, including contacting his insurer and making doubly sure that DMV received a copy of the insurer’s letter. When he received no further communication from DMV, he justifiably concluded that the error had been corrected and took no further action. If Williams has, in fact, been read correctly and absolutely restricts allegations of negligence in this type of situation to stating a cause of action for negligent misrepresentation, then claimant has adequately alleged that tort.

Even if there was no evidence that claimant had been informed of the error and taken steps to correct it, this Court would not be inclined to adhere to the interpretation that has been given to the statement in Williams regarding negligent misrepresentation. It is difficult to perceive a meaningful distinction between those motorists, such as those in Williams and the two Johnson claims, who are apparently unaware of the incorrect information in their files, and those like the claimants in Manolios and the instant claim, who have received notification and taken steps to correct the matter. If anything, the former has been victimized by two acts of negligence on the part of DMV – inclusion of the incorrect information in their records and failure to notify them of the adverse information or action – while the latter, being aware of the problem, certainly had an opportunity to avoid any injury and, arguably, a duty to follow through and make sure that corrections were made.

A more fundamental problem with the interpretation given to the Williams’ statement is that it leaves no remedy for individual motorists who are harmed when incorrect information in their DMV motorist file is relied upon by outside parties (i.e., law enforcement officials who believe that the motorist has committed a crime), while at the same time, pursuant to the holding of Ford Motor Credit Co., commercial lenders may fairly easily recover damages when the incorrect omission of information from DMV vehicle records is relied upon by outside parties (i.e., good-faith purchasers of the vehicles who believe the owner has clear title). There seems to be no essential difference between the specific negligent acts involved. That is, omitting required information on the certificate of title is no more, or no less, wrongful than including incorrect information (or failing to correct information shown to be incorrect) on a motorist’s driving record. Both actions appear to be equally ministerial, and it is just as foreseeable – if not more so – that law enforcement officials will act on information they receive from DMV, as it is that individuals seeking to buy a vehicle will do so from owners that DMV records show have clear title. If one of these situations gives rise to an actionable claim for negligence, then the other should do so as well. To hold otherwise would protect one’s economic interest, while ignoring one’s liberty interest.

Because Ford Motor Credit Co. did not expressly overrule the Williams decision, it follows that some portion of that earlier ruling remains viable. This Court considers Williams to be good law to the extent that 1) it holds that the State has not waived its sovereign immunity with respect to discretionary or quasi-judicial actions performed as part of governmental functions and 2) it sets forth the elements of a cause of action for negligent misrepresentation. To the extent that the language of Williams suggests that the State is immune with respect to any and all actions undertaken as part of its governmental functions or that injury resulting from inclusion of incorrect information on DMV records can only give rise to a cause of action for negligent misrepresentation, it appears to have been overruled by the Third Department’s subsequent decision in Ford Motor Credit Co..

There is no question but that the negligence alleged in this case – whether it is considered to be the erroneous indication that claimant’s insurance had lapsed or failure to correct the entry upon proof of coverage – is ministerial in nature, and therefore the State is not protected by the immunity accorded governmental actions involving the exercise of discretion. Whether Williams is read as limiting any claim arising under these circumstances to a claim for negligent misrepresentation, claimant still has a viable cause of action because, as was the case in Manolios, claimant himself relied on the implicit assurance that once it received valid information regarding his insurance coverage, DMV would rescind the suspension of his driver’s license. In any event, for the reasons set forth above, the Court rejects defendant’s argument that no liability can result when the injury to claimant is caused by transmisson of the incorrect information to a third party.

Defendant’s motion is denied.

June 5, 2001
Albany, New York

Judge of the Court of Claims

[2]. Although counsel for defendant refers to the motion as one for dismissal, he adds “pursuant to CPLR 3212,” the statute that governs motions for summary judgments. Both parties have submitted evidentiary material and are unquestionably treating the motion as one for summary judgment (CPLR 3211).
[3]. No documentary proof of this event exists, but claimant does not dispute that it occurred (Yanella affirmation, ¶ 2). Counsel for defendant states that the insurer notified DMV “by magnetic tape” on August 5, 1998 (Cagino affirmation, ¶ 4).
[4]. Defense counsel states that this notice was sent on October 5, 1998, but that date does not appear on the copy provided to the Court (Cagino affirmation, ¶ 4, Exh B).
[5]. Statements in Williams characterizing this cause of action as one for negligent misrepresentation are discussed below.
[6]. Two of those cases, Abruzzo v State of New York (84 AD2d 876) and Bellows v State of New York (37 AD2d 342), do rely on the fact that the actions in question are discretionary, rather than ministerial, although in both decisions the wording makes it appear that this is a separate, alternative ground for finding the State immune from liability, not a condition or quality of the immunity of uniquely governmental activity. In the third case, Newiadony v State of New York (276 App Div 59), the State was held to be immune with respect to a highway accident allegedly caused by a State Guard vehicle because the overall purpose of the State’s undertaking – maintaining a militia – is uniquely sovereign in nature. It should be noted that the Court of Claims act was subsequently amended to waive sovereign immunity for the torts of members of the organized militia and other military entities with respect to the operation of their vehicles and armories (Court of Claims Act §8-a, added L 1953, c 343, §1).

[7]. Recent decisions of the Court of Claims are available in a searchable database on the internet, free of charge. Access may be gained through the Court of Claims website at
[8]. Collins v Brown (supra) was brought by a person who had been identified – incorrectly – as the perpetrator of a crime by a witness. In a civil suit against the witness, Williams was cited for the proposition that a cause of action for negligent misrepresentation cannot be maintained when it is the police, not the accused, who relies on the misidentification.