By Richard Chin
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that a personal-injury lawsuit should be dismissed against a Hennepin County sheriff's deputy who crashed into and critically injured a woman while responding to a call.
The court determined that the deputy had immunity as a public official from liability for the accident.
The 4-3 ruling concerned a Dec. 25, 2009, incident in Brooklyn Park. That's when Deputy Jason Lee Majeski, in a Chevrolet Tahoe K-9 unit with its emergency lights activated, drove into an intersection against a red light at up to 54 mph, according to the court ruling.
At that moment, a vehicle driven by Jolene Megan Vassallo entered the intersection and Majeski's SUV smashed into it, critically injuring Vassallo.
Vassallo, now 38, suffered serious brain damage and will require nursing care for the rest of her life, according to her lawyer, Douglas Schmidt.
Schmidt filed a personal-injury lawsuit against Majeski and Hennepin County, alleging negligence by Majeski.
On the day of the accident, Majeski was responding to a home security-alarm call and a request by local police for K-9 assistance, but the road conditions that day were poor because of a recent snowfall, according to the decision.
Majeski turned on his emergency lights and siren, but just before he entered the intersection of 93rd Avenue North and West Broadway Avenue, he heard a general radio broadcast from a police officer that two males were running from officers.
"Thinking he was close to the suspects, and not wanting to alert them of his presence, Deputy Majeski turned off his siren, but kept the flashing lights on as his vehicle entered the intersection," according to the majority decision written by Justice Alan Page.
Majeski followed state law that requires a police vehicle approaching a red light or a stop sign to "sound its siren or display at least one lighted red light to the front," the decision said.
State law also says emergency vehicles approaching a stop signal should "slow down as necessary for safety, but may proceed cautiously past such red or stop sign or signal."
The majority determined that the requirement was a "discretionary duty" that entitled Majeski to official immunity.
"Official immunity 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' so that the situation requires 'the exercise of significant, independent judgment and discretion,' " according to the opinion, quoting earlier rulings.
"Deputy Majeski simply failed to see Vassallo's car until the last minute, and then made every effort to avoid her," the ruling said.
A dissenting opinion by Justice G. Barry Anderson, joined by Justices David Stras and Wilhelmina Wright, argued that a Hennepin County sheriff's office policy requires use of both red lights and siren during an emergency response.
But the majority opinion held that the policy "does not require that red lights and siren be used in a continuous fashion, leaving open the question of whether both red lights and siren is required at all times during an emergency response."
The dissenting opinion noted that while emergency vehicles are exempted from certain traffic regulations, those exemptions do come at a risk of death and serious injuries to bystanders.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that 108 people were killed in accidents involving emergency-response vehicles nationwide in 2011, and there were 116 "injury-causing accidents" involving police vehicles in 2012 in Minnesota, according to the dissent.
Schmidt said of the ruling that Vassallo "will not have her day in court."
"This court just absolutely rubber-stamped the deputy in every respect," he said.
Schmidt said that instead of slowing and proceeding carefully through the intersection as required by state law, Majeski sped up and "was traveling at a grossly excessive speed."
He also said the county failed to prove that Majeski was responding to an actual emergency.
"There was never proof of anything except a home-alarm trip," he said.
Schmidt added that suspects in the house-alarm case were traced to another house, which was surrounded by police before Majeski responded.
"It is troubling that Hennepin County was given emergency status without ever proving the existence of any emergency," according to a statement from Schmidt. "And whatever so-called emergency there was, was over, done, and finished by the time of this collision.
"This decision has frightening public-safety implications." Schmidt said.
"It seems to me it's made the streets a little less safer," said Michael Bryant, who represented the Minnesota Association for Justice, a plaintiffs' lawyers group, in a friend-of-the-court brief.
Dan Rogan, managing attorney of the Hennepin County attorney's office's civil division, said: "It's obviously tragic. It's a tragic circumstance. Our sympathy goes out to Ms. Vassallo."
But Rogan said police officers need immunity protection to free them to make the best decisions on behalf of the public without worrying about personal liability.
Rogan said Majeski was responding to an emergency of a fleeing suspect at the time of the accident. The county also asserted that Majeski did not go through a red light at the intersection. He said Majeski was not disciplined and the county sheriff's office changed no policies as a result of the accident.
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