The Connecticut Supreme Court has overturned an $11.4 million jury verdict against the town of Clinton stemming from the lawsuit of a man injured in a 2005 car crash.
The lawsuit alleged the town was responsible because a dispatcher failed to tell a volunteer firefighter, who had made a 911 call, to stop pursuing a car that had struck the firefighter’s vehicle and sped away. The car involved in the hit-and-run crashed into a tree after the firefighter had followed it, with blue lights flashing, for nearly three miles at 40 to 50 mph.
Walker Hopkins, then 19, was a passenger in the car and was ejected from the vehicle, an Infiniti, during the crash. He suffered a brain injury requiring lifelong institutional care.
Hopkins’ family sued the town, alleging that while the firefighter, Matthew Vincent, was in radio contact with the town-employed emergency dispatcher, the dispatcher authorized the chase, thus putting Hopkins in imminent harm. They argued that dispatchers should never use civilians to do police work.
The defense countered that the dispatcher’s actions were discretionary, and also offered an audiotape to show there was no indication high speeds were involved. The defense argued that the dispatcher effectively ended her participation once Vincent reported the location of the Infiniti and the dispatcher told him she would send a state police cruiser to stop the vehicle.
Municipal employees are generally immune from lawsuits if they are exercising discretion within the parameters of their job. And so the town argued that it enjoyed immunity in this case. But an exception to the immunity doctrine holds that if an employee’s actions put an identifiable person in imminent harm then a claim can be brought. The plaintiffs argued that the actions of the 911 operator put the occupants of the pursued car in imminent harm.
Ultimately, a Waterbury Superior Court jury found in the plaintiffs’ favor in 2011 and awarded damages of over $12 million. Plaintiffs lawyers said the verdict would have totaled $14 million with interest. The town was responsible for paying 90 percent of the verdict amount.
The town appealed and in a decision penned by Justice Peter Zarella, the justices ruled that the town wasn’t liable.
Specifically, the justices ruled that the information available to the 911 operator at the time did not indicate that the person who called 911 was speeding or that it was apparent in any other way that the occupants of the hit-and-run vehicle were at imminent risk. The justices opined that in deciding whether the immunity exception applies, the court can consider only what was apparent to the municipal official at the time, not what she might have learned had she asked more questions or sought more information.
“Vincent did not indicate to [the dispatcher] during their conversation that he was attempting to apprehend the driver of the Infiniti,” wrote Zarella. “Rather, the audio recording and transcript of the 911 call reveal that Vincent merely was attempting to keep the Infiniti in sight in order to identify details regarding the vehicle, including the model name, color and license plate number, and to report its location.
“Although flashing blue courtesy lights, high speed, and tailgating might have indicated to the occupants of the Infiniti that Vincent was pursuing them,” continued Zarella, “[the dispatcher] was not aware of these facts, and, thus, it could not have been apparent to her that a dangerous vehicular pursuit was in progress.”
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Dennis Eveleigh disagreed and said he would have upheld the jury’s decision.
“In my opinion, a reasonable jury could have concluded that a reasonable dispatcher… would have been aware of the inherent risks in allowing the victim of a hit-and-run to pursue the offending vehicle—at any speed,” wrote Eveleigh.