The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday denied a permanently brain-injured woman’s move to sue the sheriff’s deputy whose squad car slammed into her vehicle and gravely injured her during an emergency call in Brooklyn Park.
In a 4-3 decision with implications for both law enforcement agencies and the public, the court said the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office is immune from legal recourse because deputy Jason Majeski didn’t violate office procedure or act maliciously when he sped through a snowy intersection with lights flashing on Christmas Day 2009. His squad car struck Jolene Vassallo’s car, injuring her so gravely that she is likely to be institutionalized for life.
If Vassallo, now 38, had won, the maximum amount she could have received in Hennepin County as a result of her lawsuit would have been $500,000 because of the state’s tort liability cap. Her medical bills are well over that amount, according to her attorney, Douglas Schmidt.
“This issue obviously troubled the Supreme Court,” Schmidt said. “The public should be equally troubled. This decision has frightening public safety implications.”
For immunity to be applicable to a law officer, a court must determine whether a duty such as an emergency call is a discretionary or prescribed procedure. The Hennepin County attorney’s office argued before the state high court that such rules are discretionary and that procedures generally are based on the officer’s training.
On the afternoon of Dec. 25, 2009, Majeski was driving a K-9 unit vehicle on patrol when he was dispatched to the scene of a home security-alarm call. The deputy immediately turned on his lights and siren.
As he approached the intersection, he observed that several cars had pulled over to give way. Thinking he was close to the suspects because of a radio broadcast, he turned off his siren. Sheriff’s Office policy requires that both lights and siren be on in such situations.
Majeski was slightly driving just over the 50 mile-per-hour speed limit as he entered the intersection. He said he didn’t see Vassallo’s car. The two sides were in dispute about whether the light was red or green, but Majeski testified that there was no obstruction of visibility in the intersection.
Schmidt argued that Majeski initially had turned his lights and siren and responded in emergency mode even though no urgency or sense of emergency was conveyed in the call he got. He also argued that the deputy was accelerating on icy roads while driving over the speed limit in violation of state and sheriff’s office rules.
State law requires emergency vehicles to “slow down and proceed carefully” when going against a red light at an intersection. An independent investigation of the crash determined that Majeski was acting without regard for public safety.
Vassallo’s suit against Majeski was initiated in Hennepin County District Court, which dismissed it. The state Court of Appeals reversed that decision, and the lawsuit was then appealed to the Supreme Court.
‘This was a tragedy’
Official immunity, as governed by state and case law, typically protects the conduct of public officials responding to emergencies on the grounds that emergency conditions offer “little time for reflection” and often involve “incomplete and confusing information.”
Although Schmidt argued that the situation leading up to the crash should never have been considered an emergency call, the court ruled that Majeski ultimately didn’t violate state and Sheriff’s Office statutes.
The state Supreme Court’s majority ruling disagreed with a dissent by three justices that argued that both lights and siren should be deployed throughout an emergency response.
Dan Rogan, manager attorney for the civil division of the Hennepin County attorney’s office, said after the ruling that he believes the court came to the correction conclusion.
“The Sheriff’s Office policy left discretion for the deputy to turn off his siren under these circumstances,” he said. “This was a tragedy. We continue to express our sympathies to Miss Vassallo.”
If Vassallo’s lawsuit had prevailed, officers or state officials violating a state or department rule would have been vulnerable to more litigation, said University of Minnesota Prof. Michele Goodwin.
The ruling comes amid a growing national dialogue about immunity for law enforcers, she said.
“One criticism is that [immunity] doesn’t create in officers [a tendency] to be as careful as they could be,” she said. “But that has to balance real concern to protect people who have enormously risky jobs and the problems caused by being personally liable for just doing your job.”
Schmidt, Vassallo’s attorney, said he believes the majority of the justices simply rubber-stamped Majeski’s actions.
“Jolene Vassallo will never get her day in court,” he said. “I am profoundly sad for Jolene Vassallo, and profoundly sad for all of the other Jolene Vassallos that will be denied justice in the future.”