In Daley v. Kashmanian, SC20498 (Conn. August 30, 2022), the plaintiff sustained serious injuries after a police officer driving an unmarked police car struck the back of the plaintiff’s motorcycle while conducting surveillance on the plaintiff and a group of motorcyclists.
The jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on his negligence claims against the defendants, the police officer, and his employer (“City”); however, the trial court set aside the jury’s verdict after concluding that governmental immunity was applicable to the police officer’s conduct. The Appellate Court concluded that the trial court had properly granted the defendants’ motion to set aside the verdict on the ground that the plaintiff’s negligence claims were barred by governmental immunity. The plaintiff appealed to the Supreme Court of Connecticut.
Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557n(a) sets out that a municipality shall be liable for damages to a person or property caused by the negligent acts or omissions of the municipality or any employee, officer, or agent of the municipality acting within the scope of their employment or official duties. However, subsection (a)(1)(A) limits that liability by providing that the municipality shall not be liable for damages to a person or property caused by negligent acts or omissions that require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the authority expressly or impliedly granted by law.
This distinction has been categorized as one between governmental acts and ministerial acts. Governmental acts are performed wholly for the benefit of the public and are supervisory or discretionary in nature, whereas a ministerial act is a duty that is to be performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of discretion.
Based on the legislative history of section 52-577 and the existing common law at the time of the section’s enactment, the Connecticut Supreme Court concluded that the Legislature understood the operation of a motor vehicle to be a ministerial act. The Court found that this conclusion was consistent with the fact that the operation of a motor vehicle is highly regulated by a number of state motor vehicle statutes.
In particular, the Court noted that Conn. Gen. Stat. § 14-283 provides the operators of emergency vehicles relief from what would ordinarily be negligence per se in the violation of certain motor vehicle statutes. This relief is limited to certain circumstances, such as the response to an emergency or the police pursuit of a fleeing law violator. The Court found that the fact that a violation of the motor vehicle statutes, beyond the shelter provision of section 14-283, is punishable quasi-criminally suggested that these statutes created a ministerial obligation.
The Court explained that while the decision of the officers to use an unmarked police car to surveil the plaintiff was discretionary, once the officers decided to operate a motor vehicle on public streets for the surveillance operation, they were legally bound to comply with the statutory rules of the road unless section 14-283 applied. The officers conceded they were not operating an emergency vehicle within the meaning of section 14-283. Therefore, the officer’s operation of the unmarked police car was a ministerial act for purposes of his governmental immunity and that of the City.
The Court reversed the judgment of the Appellate Court insofar as it upheld the trial court’s motion to set aside the verdict on the plaintiff’s negligence claims.