Municipalities have long relied upon Governmental Immunity as a doctrine which recognizes that it is not in the public's interest to allow a jury of laymen, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, to second-guess the exercise of a police officer's discretionary professional duty. Thus, as a general rule, police officers are protected by discretionary act immunity when they perform the typical functions of a police officer. Recently, this protection was slightly scaled back.
On October 15, 2020, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven improperly granted summary judgment for the defendants, the City of New Haven, CT and a police officer, based on governmental immunity under Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557n(a)(2)(B) because it held that the New Haven police officer performed a ministerial duty, and not discretionary, when she attempted to stop a group of dirt bike riders.
Factual Background: On July 16, 2011, at approximately 6:43 p.m., a New Haven police officer was operating a city police cruiser northbound on Howard Avenue in New Haven while on patrol and on the lookout for dirt bikes and “quads.” The New Haven officer was travelling approximately 30 miles per hour. The city had recently received several complaints that dirt bikes and quads had been operating recklessly in the city. Right around this time, the New Haven officer spotted a group of dirt bikes and quads traveling in a southbound direction on Howard Avenue. That group, which included the plaintiff, was traveling at approximately twenty-five miles per hour and not doing any wheelies or other stunts.
When the officer spotted the group of dirt bikes, she suddenly and without warning executed a roadblock maneuver by pulling her cruiser diagonally across the double yellow line into the southbound lane directly in front of them. To avoid a head-on collision with the officer's cruiser, which was not operating with lights or sirens at the time, three of the bikes jumped the curb onto the sidewalk, and one veered into the northbound lane. The plaintiff was riding one of the dirt bikes that went up onto the sidewalk, at which point he lost control of the bike and struck a tree. At the scene, it was noted that the front of the officer's police cruiser was about ten feet from the tree and the plaintiff's bike. The New Haven officer then radioed for medical and additional police assistance. The plaintiff was transported by ambulance to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where he was treated for severe personal injuries, including skull fractures, optic nerve damage resulting in a near total loss of vision, memory loss and cognitive deficits, and permanent facial scarring.
Court's Analysis: The court reversed and remanded the case with direction to deny the defendants' motion for summary judgment and for further proceedings.
“The tort liability of a municipality has been codified in § 52-557n. Section 52-557n (a) (1) provides that [e]xcept as otherwise provided by law, a political subdivision of the state shall be liable for damages to person or property caused by: (A) The negligent acts or omissions of such political subdivision or any employee, officer or agent thereof acting within the scope of his employment or official duties . . . Section 52-557n (a) (2) (B) extends, however, the same discretionary act immunity that applies to municipal officials to the municipalities themselves by providing that they will not be liable for damages caused by negligent acts or omissions which require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the authority expressly or impliedly granted by law. . . .” Cole v. City of New Haven, No. SC 20425, 2020 Conn. LEXIS 239, at *12-13 (Oct. 15, 2020).
The Court took great pains in analyzing and reaffirming its stance that Governmental Immunity is alive and well. However, it was also clear that there will be specific instances where it is curtailed. “We do not read our previous cases as establishing the broad proposition that all police conduct in emergencies is discretionary, even in the face of binding police department policies.” Id. at *26.
In this case, the Court held that the police officer's positioning of her police cruiser in front of the group of bikes [roadblock] qualified as a pursuit, within the meaning of New Haven Department of Police Services General Order No. 94-2 (General Order) and the Department of Public Safety's Uniform Statewide Pursuit Policy, namely, § 14-283a-4 (d) (5) of the Regulations of Connecticut State Agencies (Statewide Policy). Both policies strictly prohibit pursuits in such a scenario.
The court reasoned that because such a maneuver was strictly prohibited in these policies, the roadblock was ministerial in nature, and not discretionary. In other words, there was no room for decision-making in the officer's part; she was categorically prohibited from engaging in a pursuit under the facts as described earlier. In addition to the policies, the court relied on a New Haven Police Sergeant's testimony that further reaffirmed that the roadblock maneuver was strictly prohibited. The sergeant went on to state that such a maneuver should never be used for a traffic stop violation and is only used where the application of serious and/or deadly physical force is warranted.
While the Court acknowledged the public policy implications and concern that personal and municipal liability for an officer's discretion on patrol may hamper the officers' abilities to perform their mission, the Court was simply not ready to provide Governmental Immunity in all instances of police conduct.
Conclusion: This decision highlights the importance of clear and concise policies and procedures for public employers. Employers should ensure that their employees understand these policies and procedures and they should know exactly what their roles and responsibilities are as courts give great weight to them. Employers are also encouraged to implement, on a regular basis, vigorous training programs for employees that keeps them up to date on changes in the law.