Case Against County for Squad Car Crash Dismissed by MN Supreme Court

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: official immunity.

Jolene Megan Vassallo v. Jason Lee Majeski. MN official immunity

On Christmas Day 2009, Hennepin County Deputy Sheriff Jason Majeski was patrolling in his K-9 unit. There had been a recent snowfall, and conditions were poor. He received a request for a K-9 unit to assist with a home alarm call, and he responded to the call. He turned on his lights and siren and headed toward the scene of the alarm.

While he was in route, other officers provided him the location of the suspects and that they were running from police. As he approached an intersection near that location, he turned off his siren, so as not to alert the suspects to his presence. He kept the flashing lights of the squad car activated.

He was travelling 54 miles per hour in a 50 mile zone as he approached the intersection, and he noted that the cars in front of him were pulled over. He entered the intersection against the red light, and for the first time saw the vehicle driven by Jolene Megan Vassallo headed toward him. He took evasive action, but was unable to avoid a crash. As a result of the collision, Vassallo suffered serious injuries and had no memory of the crash.

Vassallo brought a lawsuit against Deputy Majeski and the county in Hennepin County District Court. She alleged that Majeski had been negligent. Both the deputy and the county moved to dismiss the case, and argued that the claim was barred by the doctrine of official immunity. Vassallo argued that official immunity didn't apply because Majeski had been violting state statutes and sheriff's office policy in the way he conducted the response.

The trial court agreed with the county's position. It held that the deputy was responding to an emergency, and that emergency responses by law enforcement are a discretionary function. Even though the department had a general policy, it was not a detailed policy of the type necessary to overcome the discretionary function immunity, so the trial court held.

Vassallo appealed to the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and on February 4, 2013, the Court of Appeals reversed. The appellate court held that immunity could be lost by violating the department's policy regarding how officers should drive in emergency situations, and by violating the red light statute. The appeals court held that this raised a factual question of whether the deputy had slowed down as necessary for safety and proceeded cautiously, as required by department policy. The court of appeals ordered the case sent back for trial.

The county then brought the case to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court first noted that a determination must be made of whether the duty in question was discretionary or ministerial. If the policy gave the officer discretion, then official immunity applies. But if the officer violated a ministerial policy, then he and the county would be liable.

The Supreme Court then carefully looked at the department policy. It concluded that the policy gave the officer discretion of whether or not to turn on the siren. Therefore, the Supreme Court held that his actions under the policy were discretionary and, for that reason, immune from liability. Therefore, it reversed the court of appeals, and reinstated the lower court's dismissal of the case.

Justice Anderson, along with Justices Stras and Wright, dissented from the court's ruling. They reading of the statute and policy in such a way that the use of the siren was required and not discretionary. Therefore, they agreed with the Court of Appeals and would have reinstated the case.

No. A12-0859, ___ N.W.2d ___ (Minn. Feb. 12, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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