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Motor Vehicle Law: Supreme Court of Connecticut holds that governmental immunity for discretionary acts does not bar claims of negligence arising out of the operation of an emergency vehicle

The Connecticut Supreme Court addresses whether the special defense of governmental immunity for discretionary acts bars claims of negligence against drivers operating an “emergency vehicle” pursuant to the privileges provided by the emergency vehicle statute, General Statutes § 14-283. On August 10, 2017, an officer responded to a dispatch call for a possible abduction in progress. The officer activated his emergency lights and sirens. The plaintiff was traveling on the same street several cars ahead of the officer. As the officer approached the plaintiff from behind, the three cars directly behind the plaintiff’s vehicle yielded. At the intersection, the officer attempted to pass the plaintiff’s vehicle on the left. Traveling 71.8 miles per hour on a roadway with posted speed limits of 30 and 40 miles per hour, the officer’s cruiser collided with the driver’s side of the plaintiff’s vehicle when the plaintiff made a left turn at the same time the officer attempted to pass her on the left.

The plaintiff and her children in the vehicle sustained personal injuries. The plaintiff brought this action against the defendants, claiming negligence, negligent supervision, and respondeat superior. The defendants subsequently moved for summary judgment, claiming that discretionary act immunity under § 52-557n(a)(2)(B) barred the plaintiff’s claims. The trial court found in favor of the defendants, granting their motion for summary judgment, and the plaintiff appealed. In Borelli, this court held that the duty “to drive with due regard” provided by § 14-283(d) requires the exercise of a police officer’s judgment in determined whether to initiate and continue pursuit of a fleeing motorist and, in that respect, is entitled to discretionary act immunity.

Subsequently, in Daley, this court held that a police officer’s operation of an unmarked vehicle lacking emergency warning devices, known as a “soft car” was not entitled to governmental immunity because the operation of a nonemergency vehicle, outside the scope of § 14-283, is a highly regulated activity that constitutes a ministerial function. The court observes that the principal issue on appeal is whether “the duty to drive with due regard” required by § 14-283(d) is a discretionary or ministerial act for purposes of discretionary act immunity under § 52-557n(a)(2)(B). The court finds that if liability attached under the common law to any discretionary act, § 52-557n does not supersede that common-law doctrine, and discretionary act immunity does not apply.

With this understanding, the court then considers the relationship between §§ 14-283 and 52-557n(a)(2)(B). Section 14-283 provides in relevant part that an “operator of any emergency vehicle may … proceed past any red light, stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down or stopping to the extent necessary for the safe operation of such vehicle … exceed the posted speed limits or other speed limits imposed by or pursuant to section 14-218a, 14-219 or 14-307a as long as such operator does not endanger life or property by so doing, and … disregard statutes, ordinances or regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specific directions.” Moreover, § 52-557n contains no express or implied reference to § 14-283, which reasonably calls into question whether § 52-557n, as the later enacted statute, was intended by the legislature to confer immunity. Finally, and significantly, § 14-283(d) provides that “[t]he provisions of this section shall not relieve the operator of an emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons and property,” which typically is not seen in statutes conferring immunity.

Taking all of these consideration into account, the court finds that the provisions at issue are ambiguous and turns to extratextual sources for their proper construction. Reading the two statutes together in light of their legislative purposes, the court concludes that “the duty to drive with due regard” mandated by § 14-283(d) functions as an exception “provided by law” under the savings clause applicable to discretionary act immunity in § 52-557n(a)(2)(B). Further support for the court’s conclusion is found in the fact that the operation of an emergency vehicle is not one of the enumerated exceptions to liability provided in § 52-557n (b) which effectively confer governmental immunity in specific contexts. The court also deems it significant that, by its own terms, § 14-283(d) imposes only a negligence standard of care on emergency vehicle operators, rather than the recklessness standard set forth in the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) and followed by other sister state jurisdictions.

The court further states that its conclusion that § 14-283(d) precludes discretionary act immunity only for the operation of an emergency vehicle appears to be consistent with both Governor Lamont’s concerns and the legislature’s repeated attempts to ensure that governmental immunity does not apply in this context. Accordingly, the court concludes that the discretionary act immunity provided by § 52-557n(a)(2)(B) does not apply to the manner in which an emergency vehicle is operated by virtue of the codified, common-law duty to drive with “due regard” pursuant to § 14-283(d). The trial court, therefore, should not have granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment. Adesokan v. Town of Bloomfield, 347 Conn. 416 (2023).