Court Issues Another Immunity Decision

Last week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued its decision in Legue v. City of Racine, another immunity case involving the operation of an emergency vehicle. The case arose from a motor vehicle accident involving plaintiff’s vehicle and a City of Racine police car driven by Officer Amy Matsen. The officer was responding to an emergency dispatch. She pulled into the intersection of Douglas Avenue and South Street in Racine after first stopping at the red light. Plaintiff had a green light and did not slow down when entering the intersection, nor did she hear the officer’s siren or horn due to her radio, air conditioning and closed windows. Both parties agreed that a fast food restaurant on the corner of the intersection blocked each of their views of the other vehicle prior to entering the intersection. Plaintiff’s vehicle struck the officer’s vehicle once they were in the intersection and both parties were injured in the accident. Plaintiff sued the officer and the City of Racine for her injuries.

The jury found both parties to be fifty percent causally negligent in the accident and awarded plaintiff approximately $130,000 in damages. The circuit court granted the officer’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the grounds that the officer’s decision to enter the intersection was discretionary, and thus, immune from suit. The court explained that while the officer had a duty to exercise due regard, in this case the officer’s negligence was not causal. The court of appeals certified the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to address the issue of reconciling the statutory dichotomy of discretionary immunity and ministerial liability with the duty of officers to operate an emergency vehicle with “due regard” under Wis. Stat. § 346.03(5).

The supreme court reversed the circuit court decision. The court first looked to both to the immunity statute and the rules of the road. It concluded that the immunity provided under § 893.80(4) did not apply to the officer’s violation of the duty to operate a vehicle with due regard in this case. While operators of emergency vehicles are allowed to disregard the rules of the road under certain circumstances, the legislature would not exempt them from these rules yet also impose a duty of due regard under § 346.03(5) if a violation of that duty could not result in liability. To interpret the “due regard” requirement in such a manner would render it mere surplusage, in violation of the canons of interpretation. As a result, the court found an officer who is alleged to have breached the duty of due care under § 346.03(5) is not immune from suit under § 893.80(4). The court also analyzed the case of Estate of Cavanaugh v. Andrade, relied upon by both parties, which involved a high-speed chase. In an attempt to clarify which acts may be considered ministerial versus discretionary, the court explained that in Cavanaugh, the officer’s allegedly negligent acts were related to the decision to pursue, which is a discretionary act, and therefore, immune. The court, however, identified the distinction between the decision to pursue (immune) and the negligent physical operation of a vehicle (not immune). The duty of due regard relates purely to the operation of the vehicle, not the immune act of initiating or continuing a pursuit. Further, the court found the Racine Police Department’s internal procedures, which outline the considerations each officer must take into account in driving with “due regard,” established a ministerial duty. As the officer’s acts were outside the scope of immunity, the court held the officer liable for negligence. Further, the court found there was credible evidence to sustain the finding of causal negligence by the jury, and reversed and remanded.

As this case continues to prove, no two immunity cases are the same. However, as the courts continue to refine their framework in these cases, it will be interesting to see whether their trend of applying a very strict interpretation of immunity continues.

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