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Vassallo v. Majeski

Supreme Court of Minnesota

February 12, 2014

Jolene Megan Vassallo, by and through her Guardian ad Litem, Lisa A. Brown, Respondent,
v.
Jason Lee Majeski, et al., Appellants.

Court of Appeals, Office of Appellate Courts

Douglas E. Schmidt, Schmidt Law Firm, Minnetonka, Minnesota, for respondent.

Michael O. Freeman, Hennepin County Attorney, Toni A. Beitz, Senior Assistant County Attorney, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for appellants.

Michael A. Bryant, Nicole L. Bettendorf-Hopps, Bradshaw & Bryant, P.L.L.C., Waite Park, Minnesota, for amicus curiae Minnesota Association for Justice.

John J. Choi, Ramsey County Attorney, Kimberly Parker and Robert B. Roche, Assistant County Attorneys, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for amici curiae Minnesota County Attorneys Association, Association of Minnesota Counties, and League of Minnesota Cities.

SYLLABUS

1. In analyzing the applicability of official immunity, a court must first determine whether a particular duty is discretionary or ministerial. Only if the duty is determined to be ministerial is it then proper to consider the question of compliance with the duty.

2. The requirement of Minn. Stat. § 169.03, subd. 2 (2012), that an emergency vehicle, "upon approaching a red or stop signal or any stop sign shall slow down as necessary for safety, but may proceed cautiously past such red or stop sign or signal, " creates a discretionary duty.

3. The requirement of Minn. Stat. § 169.03, subd. 2, that a law enforcement vehicle, upon approaching a red or stop signal or any stop sign, "shall sound its siren or display at least one lighted red light to the front, " creates a ministerial duty with which the defendant complied.

4. The requirement of Hennepin County Sheriff's Office Policy 6-402 to use "both red lights and siren . . . when responding to an emergency" does not create a ministerial duty that was violated by the defendant in this case.

5. The requirement of Hennepin County Sheriff's Office Policy 6-402 "to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons" creates a discretionary duty.

6. The exception to immunity for malicious acts permits liability only when the official willfully or maliciously violates a known right.

OPINION

PAGE, Justice.

This case arises out of a traffic accident that occurred when appellant Hennepin County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Lee Majeski's emergency vehicle struck respondent Jolene Megan Vassallo's vehicle as Deputy Majeski was responding to an emergency call. The central issue presented is whether Deputy Majeski individually, and his employer appellant Hennepin County, are entitled to official immunity and vicarious official immunity, respectively. The specific question presented is whether Deputy Majeski violated a ministerial duty created either by the provisions of Minn. Stat. § 169.03, subd. 2 (2012), or by the policies of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, depriving him of the otherwise-applicable immunity. The district court found that, because Deputy Majeski's actions were discretionary and not ministerial and did not involve a willful or malicious wrong, he was entitled to official immunity. The court of appeals reversed and remanded for additional fact finding. Because we hold, based on the undisputed facts, that Deputy Majeski did not violate any ministerial duty created by these statutory and policy provisions, we reverse the court of appeals and remand to the district court for entry of judgment in favor of appellants.

On the afternoon of December 25, 2009, Deputy Majeski was driving a K-9 unit vehicle on patrol.[1] Road conditions were poor due to a recent snowfall, with snow and slush in some areas and wet roads in others. Deputy Majeski was informed of a home security-alarm call and a request by local police for K-9 assistance. Shortly thereafter, Deputy Majeski was dispatched to the scene. Upon being dispatched, he turned on his vehicle's emergency lights and siren and headed toward the address of the alarm. Within minutes of being dispatched, he was provided with the location of the individuals suspected of triggering the alarm.

As he approached an intersection near that location, Deputy Majeski observed multiple cars that had pulled over to give way to his vehicle. He did not see any vehicles moving into or out of the intersection. Shortly before he entered the intersection, he heard a general radio broadcast from a police officer indicating that two males were running from officers. Thinking he was close to the suspects, and not wanting to alert them of his presence, Deputy Majeski turned off his siren, but kept the flashing lights on as his vehicle entered the intersection. The vehicle was traveling up to 54 miles per hour in a 50 mile-per-hour speed zone as it approached the intersection, and the light was red when the vehicle entered the intersection.

Upon entering the intersection, Deputy Majeski for the first time saw Vassallo's vehicle coming toward him across the intersection. Deputy Majeski attempted to avoid a collision, but could not. Vassallo's vehicle made no evasive maneuvers. As a result of the ensuing ...


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