Supreme Court: Hennepin cop who ran red light immune from lawsuit

A divided Minnesota Supreme Court today tossed out a lawsuit against a Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy who smashed into a car while responding to an emergency.

On Christmas Day 2009, Deputy Sheriff Jason Majeski was responding to a burglary call in Brooklyn Park, but when other officers provided him the location of fleeing suspects, he turned off his squad car’s siren as he neared the intersection of 93rd Avenue and West Broadway, near where they reportedly were.

As he approached, he saw cars in front of him pulled over against the red light, and then crashed into a car, driven by Jolene Megan Vassallo of Minneapolis. She was seriously hurt in the crash.

Vassallo sued Majeski and Hennepin County for negligence, but a trial court threw the case out because the responders have official immunity.

The Court of Appeals reinstated the suit, ruling that immunity could be lost when the policy of how officers should drive in emergency situations is violated. Today, however, the Supreme Court said officers have the discretion whether to use the siren and are immune from suits such as the one thrown out today.

“Official immunity is intended to enable public employees to perform their duties effectively, without fear of personal liability that might inhibit the exercise of their independent judgment,” Justice Alan Page wrote.

Vassallo’s attorney argued that state law requires drivers of emergency vehicles “to slow down as necessary for safety.” But Page said the requirement does not impose an absolute duty upon the driver of an emergency vehicle to slow down in every situation.

In a dissent shared by two other justices, Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote that Hennepin County’s Sheriff’s Office policy requires the use both red lights and sirens by police officers when responding to an emergency, saying the deputy didn’t have the legal discretion to turn one off.

Deputy Majeski testified that in training he was also told that “[a]ny time that you would—you exceed state and local traffic laws in response to getting a call, you need to activate your emergency red lights and sirens.”

This explanation implies that Deputy Majeski was trained to keep the lights and siren activated as long as he was violating traffic laws, as when running a red light. Another officer testified that he had been told that it was permissible to turn off the siren before the lights, but the only example of a situation he could think of in which that would apply is when the light and siren functions are controlled by two different switches, forcing the operator to turn off one before the other with a momentary delay in between.

That officer specifically denied he had ever been told that there are any other exceptions to HCSO Policy 6-402. Likewise, the head of the HCSO Professional Standards Division stated, “By these rules, you have to use both your red lights and your siren,” and stated that although in theory there could be some unwritten exceptions to this, she could not provide any exceptions or examples of a situation in which it would be permissible to operate one without the other during an emergency response.

Here’s the full opinion.