On Christmas day, 2009, Hennepin County sheriff’s deputy Jason Majeski responded to a call regarding a burglary in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. While driving to the scene, his marked K-9 SUV struck a passenger car, causing serious injuries to Jolene Vassallo, the car’s driver. On Wednesday, February 12, 2014, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled that Deputy Majeski carries no financial liability for Ms. Vassallo’s medical expenses because he is a public official entitled to immunity.
Court documents state that Majeski engaged his vehicle’s flashing lights and siren as he headed toward the burglary scene; however, he later silenced the siren to avoid warning the suspects. The lack of a siren also failed to warn other drivers, particularly Ms. Vassallo, when Majeski traveled through a red light. Majeski reported trying, and failing, to avoid hitting the other car. Ms. Vassallo suffered lasting injuries, including brain damage. She does not recall the accident and will require life-long nursing care.
With the help of attorney Douglas Schmidt, Ms. Vassallo filed a lawsuit against Hennepin County and Deputy Majeski. The lawsuit claimed negligence for failing to use the siren despite the requirement stated in Minnesota Statute 169.03.
A district court first ruled that Majeski deserved immunity because his actions were neither malicious nor willful. A state appeals court ruled otherwise: Majeski was not immune because he did not use his siren. The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the appeal, citing the lack of clarity in the state’s policy. Since the statute does not mention "continuous fashion" regarding the use of lights or a siren, there is room for interpretation. Therefore, the deputy is not responsible for any damages — physical, emotional or financial — that Ms. Vassallo suffered.
This opens up an area of great concern regarding public safety.
Some argue that officers must be able to carry out their duties unhindered, making quick yet necessary decisions in any given moment. To that end, they require immunity from personal liability when performing their jobs.
Others disagree, believing that this ruling creates a frighteningly real public safety hazard. Statistics would seem to support this view. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2011, 108 deaths occurred due to accidents with emergency-response vehicles. In 2012, Minnesota alone saw 116 accidents with police vehicles that resulted in injuries.
Softening the requirement for emergency-vehicle warning signals, both flashing lights and sirens, could put the public in danger. Drivers rely on these signals to know when to move aside or stop to allow an emergency vehicle to pass. Any driver, seeing a green light, will assume the right of way. If responders need to disregard the rules, drivers need the warning.
Removing all liability by granting immunity to public officials could also lead to carelessness during an emergency response. Getting to the scene is an urgent matter, but responders potentially endanger the lives of innocents if they aren’t concerned about how they get there; they also increase the risks to themselves in such a scenario.
Ms. Vassallo’s lawyers aren’t the only ones who see frightening implications in this ruling. Injury attorney Richard Tousignant from Minnesota’s largest personal injury law firm, Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, states, “I find this decision very disturbing. The court found the office’s actions were neither malicious nor willful. That is not the standard and never has been. The issue is whether he followed the law and the rules. It does not appear that this officer followed the laws or the rules and the court took the right to make that decision away from the jury.”
Deputy Majeski received no disciplinary action; no county policies have changed; and Ms. Vassallo is out of appeal options. She will move to assisted living near her family in New York.
If you or your loved ones have suffered because of a serious accident, the attorneys at Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben have the experience needed to help you. Our caring, tireless commitment is focused on supporting you and on obtaining the compensation you deserve. We cover every aspect and leave no avenue unexplored in our dedication to your case. Call (612) 377-7777 or 1-800-752-4265 (toll-free) today for a free consultation appointment.