The state Supreme Court last week tossed a lawsuit against Hartford police for not preventing a murder at a residence where officers had been called for a domestic dispute just hours before.
Plaintiffs lawyers said the decision marks the continuation of a trend where suing governments and their agencies is becoming more difficult.
“If you’re a plaintiff, it’s getting harder and harder to sue a municipality,” said the plaintiff’s appellate lawyer in the case, Hugh Hughes.
In a separate decision in March, the state Supreme Court justices overturned an $11.4 million verdict against the town of Clinton. While a discretionary act by municipal employees typically bars a lawsuit, that decision hinged on whether an imminent-harm exception applied.
In this case, the central issue was whether the decision by police officers to leave the house after an initial domestic disturbance—but before the murder—was discretionary or not.
On Nov. 5, 2007, around 8:30 p.m., Hartford Police Officers Garrett Fancher and Zachery Freeto were called to a residence on Bolton Street following a domestic incident.
The dispute took place between Jahmesha Williams and Gerard “Chappy” Chapdelaine. The pair had an infant son though only Williams lived at the home with her baby and her mother, Lorna Coley. Coley arrived home right about the time Chapdelaine pulled a gun on Williams and threatened to kill her. Coley said she’d call the police if he did not leave.
Cops were soon called, but when they arrived Chapdelaine was gone. He had left his car parked illegally on that street. So officers ticketed him and had his car towed. The officers then said they would leave and get an arrest warrant for him because there was an active order of protection that he had violated when he came to the house that evening.
Three hours later, Chapdelaine returned to the house. Police were again called. This time when they arrived, they discovered Coley had been shot and killed.
Police in Wethersfield located Chapdelaine later that night. He was shot and killed after he shot at them.
Two years later, Coley’s estate filed a lawsuit against the Hartford Police Department, alleging that it was negligent in the failure to arrest Chapdelaine and remain at the home to make sure there were no further violent incidents.
The city filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the negligence claim was barred by the doctrine of governmental immunity. Defense lawyers cited a state statute that says a municipality may be held liable for its negligent acts that cause injury to an individual, except where those acts require the exercise of discretion.
A trial judge granted the motion, finding that the actions of the police officers that evening were discretionary.
On appeal, Hughes, the plaintiff’s lawyer, argued that the officers breached a ministerial duty pursuant to a separate statute, which isn’t discretionary but rather must be done and would allow the lawsuit to continue.
Specifically, he cited a statute that says when responding to a complaint of domestic violence, if the officer determines that no cause exists for an arrest, the officer shall remain at the scene “for a reasonable time until, in the reasonable judgment of the officer, the likelihood of further imminent violence has been eliminated.”
In an opinion released in January 2013, the state Appellate Court sided with the police officers and said their decision to leave was discretionary. In a decision penned by Judge Bethany Alvord, the appellate court said the statute Hughes cited didn’t apply because the officers did not determine that there was no cause for an arrest. The court explained that the officers left the scene with the intention of obtaining a warrant for Chapdelaine’s arrest.
Hughes then asked the state Supreme Court to review the case. In its majority opinion by Chief Justice Chase Rogers, the court agreed with the trial and appellate courts. The decision, in part, hinged on the use of the word “shall” in the statute Hughes argued applied.
“Contrary to the plaintiff’s contention, the word ‘shall’ does not necessarily give rise to a ministerial duty to remain at the scene when the policy language, read in its entirety, clearly relies upon the police officer’s discretion in deciding how to perform the allegedly ministerial act of remaining at the scene,” wrote Rogers.
Justice Dennis Eveleigh, in a dissent, agreed with Hughes’ position and would have allowed the case to go to trial.
“The police did not remain at the scene for any length of time, let alone a reasonable length of time,” wrote Eveleigh. “The facts recited by the majority would create, in my view, an issue for the trier of fact, at the time of trial. Therefore, since I would conclude that there was a ministerial duty to remain at the scene for some period of time … summary judgment is inappropriate in this case.”
Hartford’s Senior Assistant Corporation Counsel Jonathan Beamon was pleased and not surprised by the majority’s ruling.
“I think it’s more the court upholding its precedent in the cases that have come out regarding governmental immunity,” said Beamon. “They looked at the facts of the case and applied the precedents of other governmental immunity decisions.”
Hughes, meanwhile, believes the decision will lead to more litigation. He said defense lawyers will interpret the decision broadly. For instance, when there seems to be an ordinance directing a ministerial duty, they’ll cite this decision and still argue there are implicit conditions involving discretion.
“The bottom line though is courts really do not favor municipal liability,” said Hughes.•