Last month, in a decision with far-ranging consequences, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a call to abrogate the existing “discretionary” immunity standard applied to tort claims made against municipal actors. Representing the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, the Wisconsin Towns Association, and the Wisconsin Counties Association as amici curiae (friends of the court), we filed a brief and participated in oral argument.
In Engelhardt v. City of New Berlin, 2019 WI 2, 385 Wis. 2d 86, 921 N.W.2d 714, the Court held that the City of New Berlin was not protected by governmental immunity because the known-and-present-danger exception applied. However, as urged by Stafford, the Court preserved the discretionary immunity standard for tort claims against municipal actors. As explained below, because only a narrow, 4-3 majority of the Wisconsin Supreme Court favored preserving the “discretionary” immunity standard, further challenges to that long-established standard are foreseeable.
Background on Governmental Immunity
Stafford Rosenbaum frequently defends municipal parties against tort claims. Immunity is often a key issue in such cases. Wis. Stat. § 893.80 provides immunity to a municipal actor “for acts done in the exercise of its legislative, quasi-legislative, judicial or quasi-judicial functions.” Recognizing the separation of powers pitfalls implicated by permitting individual parties to use the courts to intrude and review the policy decisions of elected bodies (e.g., Town and Village boards, City councils, etc.), the Court has long interpreted Wis. Stat. § 893.80 to provide immunity for the “discretionary” decisions of municipal actors.
However, there are two main exceptions to immunity – one for ministerial duties and another for known and present dangers. Duties are ministerial for the purposes of governmental immunity when a duty is “absolute, certain and imperative, involving merely the performance of a specific task” imposed by law. This exception to immunity applies when statutes, ordinances, or policies obligate the municipality to take a specific action. Where there is no discretion, there is no immunity. For example, the Court held that where regulations require railings on a stadium’s camera stand, there is no discretion to place the railings, and therefore no immunity from claims to recover damages caused by the failure to install such railings.
The second exception, the known-and-present-danger exception, applies only “where the danger is so severe and so immediate” that a response is demanded. Once again, because there is no discretion, there is no immunity. However, application of this judicially created exception is narrow and very fact-specific. For example, the seminal case involves a fall, arguably caused by a park ranger’s failure to give warning that a path passed within inches of a partially concealed 90-foot drop.
Case Background for the Engelhardt decision
The Engelhardt case arose when Lily Engelhardt, age eight, drowned during a summer camp field trip to a swimming pool. Lily’s mother had informed the camp supervisor that Lily could not swim; however, no other camp staff were informed of this fact. Lily’s mother granted permission for Lily to attend the field trip after assurances that Lily would be given a swim test upon arrival at the pool. If Lily did not pass the swim test, the camp supervisor promised to keep her in the shallow, splash pad area.
However, when the nearly 80 campers arrived at the pool, Lily was not tested before she entered the water. Although campers like Lily were instructed to see a camp staff member for a swim test, no one was directly supervising Lily. As camp staff completed ushering campers through the locker rooms, Lily was discovered drowned in the pool by lifeguards who were unable to revive her.
Lily’s parents brought suit against the City (which ran the summer camp program) for wrongful death. The City moved for summary judgment, arguing that the suit was barred by governmental immunity. After the circuit court denied the City’s motion, the Court of Appeals reversed. The appellate court held that the City had not breached any alleged “ministerial duty” and that the facts of the case did not constitute a known and present danger.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed. It denied the City’s invocation of immunity because the “obvious dangers” under the circumstances met the standard for the “narrow” known-and-present danger exception.
The portion of the decision with broader impact is the majority’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ request that the Court eliminate the “discretionary” immunity standard. The majority, written by Justice Shirley Abrahamson, highlighted the seminal 1976 decision in Lister v. Board of Regents. There, the Court applied the discretionary standard based on the “public policy considerations” of protecting the public purse and a preference for “political rather than judicial redress for the actions of public officers.”
The Engelhardt majority also highlighted the fact that the Legislature has acquiesced for decades in the discretionary-immunity standard; this acquiescence includes, but is not limited to, the 1977 repeal and recreation of the immunity statute. Because this revision was after the Lister decision applying the discretionary standard, the Engelhardt majority found that the Legislature’s inaction expressed implicit approval of that standard. In other words, the majority reasoned that if the Legislature thought the Court was wrong to interpret the statute as applying to “discretionary” decisions in 1976, then the Legislature would have addressed that issue when it repealed and recreated the immunity statute in 1977.
Finally, the majority noted that just two years ago, in Melchert v. Pro Elec. Contractors, the Court rejected the interpretation proposed by the Engelhardts (which was reflected in the dissent written by Justice Rebecca Bradley and joined by Justice Daniel Kelly).
The three Justices (Rebecca Dallet, Rebecca Bradley, and Daniel Kelly) who did not join the majority filed a separate opinion. That opinion, while technically a concurrence, agreed with nothing in the majority except the end-result that the City was not entitled to immunity. In her first opinion on the Court, Justice Dallet argued that the majority “expanded” the “narrow” exception for known and present dangers to accommodate the facts of this case. She explained that the exception typically applied only where the potential danger was high and imminent and the act required to prevent the danger was clear. By comparison, Justice Dallet reasoned that, if camp staff had seen Lily walking along the edge of the deep end of the pool, then the exception may have applied. Because Lily’s presence at the pool facility did not on its own create a compelling danger, she concluded that the exception should not apply.
Instead of invoking the known-and-present-danger exception, the concurrence would have rejected immunity outright. To reach that outcome, the concurring Justices recommended eliminating the existing “discretionary” immunity standard. In proposing abrogation of this standard, Justice Dallet referred to the “plain language” of statute and harkened back to the Court’s 1962 seminal decision in Holytz v. City of Milwaukee, which abrogated common-law immunity. One year later in 1963, the Legislature enacted the predecessor to today’s Wis. Stat. § 893.80 which re-instated immunity based upon language in the Holytz decision. In light of the relationship between Holytz and the re-instated statutory immunity, the concurrence emphasized Holytz’s assertion that, “so far as governmental responsibility for torts is concerned, the rule is liability – the exception is immunity.”
Justice Dallet went on to catalogue what she called the judicial chaos created by the discretionary standard, which, she asserted, seemed “almost random at times.” The three-justice concurrence declared there was “no time like the present” to eliminate the existing “discretionary” immunity standard. In its place, Justice Dallet proposed an interpretation that provides immunity “only for agents or employees of a governmental entity who are engaged in an act that, in some sense or degree, resembles making laws or exercising judgments related to government business.”
Applying this proposed standard, the concurrence reasons that the “promulgation” of the City’s camp guidelines would receive immunity for the content of the guidelines, but the City would not be immune “from suit for its camp staff negligently failing to supervise Lily in accordance with the guidelines.” Justice Dallet’s opinion highlighted that the camp guidelines provided clear instructions to “know where the kids in your care are at all times” and “under no circumstances should kids be left alone.” Because the City allegedly failed to meet these guidelines, she concluded that no immunity should apply.
The weakness of the majority’s opinion is that (as charged by the concurrence) it arguably expands the “narrow” known-and-present-danger exception. In other words, Lily’s mere presence at the pool cannot create a known and compelling danger, at least as that exception had been applied previously. Nonetheless, the facts of Lily’s drowning are tragic. Perhaps, as footnoted by the concurrence, a modest expansion of the “known danger” exception would serve former Justice Crooks’ wish to strike a better “balance between too much immunity . . . and too much liability.” Such a re-balancing could help to address the constant refrain to Holytz declaring that “liability is the rule, immunity the exception” and the repeated calls to eliminate the existing “discretionary” immunity standard.
By comparison, the concurrence fails to mention any of the legislature’s acquiescence to the “discretionary” standard or its acting in reliance upon it – an argument emphasized by the majority. After all, the governmental immunity applicable today is statutory, while the immunity abrogated by Holytz was judicially created. Even in Holytz, which abrogated immunity and is relied upon by the concurrence, the court painstakingly distinguished its ability to abrogate immunity in 1962 because the doctrine was judicially created – which is entirely different from the present-day review of statutory immunity enacted by the Legislature. The concurrence offers no explanation on how to rectify this distinction in order to alter now the longstanding application of statutory immunity. Instead, the concurrence would simply overrule the Court’s precedent on the “discretionary” immunity standard.
It is also hard to see how the proposed alternative standard offers any more clarity than the standard the concurrence wants to abandon. The proposed standard applies only where the municipal actor is “engaged in an act that, in some sense or degree, resembles making laws or exercising judgment related to government business.” How this standard differs from the existing discretionary standard is entirely unclear. To be fair, the proposed standard would apply to the promulgation of policies, but, if it did not extend to “acts done in the exercise of” such policies, it would directly contradict the statutory language (which the concurrence claims to be reliant upon). Even more to the point, it would create a legal fiction to grant immunity to the decision to enact a policy yet deny immunity from the results of those policies being acted upon.
Applying this newly proposed standard, Justice Dallet concludes that, because the camp staff negligently failed to supervise Lily according to camp guidelines, there would be no immunity. There is a view of the facts that support such a conclusion in this case. However, how this conclusion differs from the existing ministerial-duty standard is once again unclear. If the three-justice concurrence concluded that the camp staff failed to comply with guidelines imposed upon them, then this constitutes a breach of a ‘ministerial duty’ and there is no “discretion” under the existing immunity standard. In other words, the concurrence need not create a whole new standard just to reach the same result. The concurrence could have simply applied the “ministerial-duty” exception under the existing discretionary immunity standard. The concurrence does not explain why it did not.
For municipal clients, setting aside the fact-specific application of the known-and-present-danger exception in Engelhardt, the main takeaway from the decision is that Justice Dallet joined Justices Rebecca Bradley and Daniel Kelly in seeking to eliminate the existing discretionary-immunity standard. Justice Abrahamson wrote the majority opinion preserving the standard; however, with an April judicial election to replace her on the bench (and Justice Kelly’s seat being up for election in April 2020), her following words appear likely prescient:
It is unwise for a court to frequently call into question existing and long-standing law. Doing so gives the impression that the decision to overturn prior cases is ‘undertaken merely because the composition of the court has changed.’
In light of the sharp disagreements on the court regarding the interpretation and application of Wis. Stat. § 893.80, the existing discretionary immunity standard for municipal actors is likely to remain a flashpoint for the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the coming years.