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Raymond v. Pine County Sheriff's Office

Court of Appeals of Minnesota

May 7, 2018

Carol S. Raymond, Trustee for the Next-of-Kin of Joseph A. Kelley, Deceased, et al., Respondents,
v.
Pine County Sheriff's Office, et al., Appellants.

          Chisago County District Court File No. 13-CV-16-647

          J. Vincent Stevens, Patrick A. Doran, Miller & Stevens, P.A., Forest Lake, Minnesota (for respondents)

          Joseph J. Langel, Nathan B. Shepherd, Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., Minneapolis, Minnesota (for appellants)

          Considered and decided by Johnson, Presiding Judge; Kirk, Judge; and Reilly, Judge.

         SYLLABUS

         A public official may be entitled to official immunity if he or she is alleged to have committed a tort while performing official duties. A public official may not invoke the doctrine of official immunity if he or she was not performing official duties when he or she engaged in the conduct that a plaintiff alleges was tortious.

          OPINION

          JOHNSON, Judge.

         The primary question in this appeal is whether a law-enforcement officer is entitled to official immunity for a claim that the officer was negligent while driving from home to work. The district court concluded that the officer is not entitled to official immunity because he was not performing his official duties while driving to work and did not perform his official duties during the relevant period of time. We agree and, therefore, affirm.

         FACTS

         This wrongful-death case arises from a series of two automobile accidents on interstate highway 35 (I-35) in Chisago County.

         At approximately 5:20 a.m. on November 6, 2013, Joseph Allen Kelley was driving to work in his Ford Ranger pickup truck. It was still dark at the time, and the pavement was wet or icy due to light snowfall overnight. Kelley entered the southbound lanes of I-35 at county highway 10 near the city of Harris. He initially drove in the right lane, behind a Dodge Ram pickup truck. He moved to the left lane to pass it. Soon thereafter, Kelley swerved to avoid a deer carcass that was lying on the pavement in the left lane, near the center line. Kelley lost control of his pickup, which slid on the gravel shoulder and then rolled in the grassy median. Kelley's pickup came to rest in an upright position on the far edge of the median, near the shoulder of the northbound lanes of I-35. Kelley's pickup was facing southeast with its headlights shining across the northbound lanes. During the rollover, Kelley was ejected from his pickup. His body came to rest on the pavement in the left northbound lane of I-35.

         Meanwhile, Richard A. Giese was driving to work in the northbound lanes of I-35. Giese, a licensed police officer, was employed by Pine County as an investigator in the sheriff's office. Giese was driving an unmarked squad car, a 2007 Chevy Impala, which was owned by the county. The county maintained a policy that permitted Giese to drive the county-owned vehicle to and from his home in certain circumstances for work-related reasons. The parties do not dispute that Giese was complying with the county's policy concerning the squad car on that morning.

         Giese entered the northbound lanes of I-35 at state highway 95 near the city of North Branch. He initially drove in the right lane behind a four-door sedan. Giese moved to the left lane to pass the sedan because its driver was driving erratically (by, for example, flashing the headlights between high beams and low beams and by tapping on the brakes). Soon thereafter, Giese saw a stalled vehicle in the median, near his lane of traffic, with its headlights pointed in a southeast direction across the northbound lanes. Giese believed that the stalled vehicle in the median likely had slipped off the pavement and had spun around before stopping there.

         As Giese approached the stalled vehicle, he scanned the area to see if anyone was walking near the vehicle. Giese did not see anyone near the stalled vehicle and continued driving. After he drove past the stalled vehicle's headlights, Giese's own headlights illuminated an object on the pavement in his lane of traffic. He was unable to move to the right lane because the sedan was traveling alongside him. He applied his brakes but did not stop before striking the object. Giese's squad car dragged the object along the pavement for approximately 92 feet. After coming to a stop, Giese activated his emergency lights, backed up, and parked his squad car to protect the scene. Giese then realized that he had struck a person's body. Giese exited the squad car, approached the body, and checked a wrist for a pulse. Giese then checked in and around the stalled vehicle for other passengers, advised onlookers to return to their vehicles, notified dispatch of the situation, and waited for a state trooper and emergency personnel to arrive. Kelley was pronounced dead at the scene.

         In October 2016, Kelley's mother, Carol S. Raymond, commenced this wrongful-death action against Giese and the county on behalf of Kelley's next of kin. Raymond alleges that Giese was negligent and that his negligence caused Kelley's death. Raymond alleges that the county is vicariously liable for Giese's negligence because the county owned the squad car that Giese was driving.[1]

         In his deposition, Giese testified that, as he approached the stalled vehicle, he slowed down to approximately 40 to 50 miles per hour. In contrast, two passengers of the Dodge Ram pickup (which Kelley had attempted to pass and which stopped on a southbound shoulder after Kelley's pickup rolled) testified in depositions that, immediately before and after ...


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