MADISON (AP) – A divided Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday ruled against a Racine police officer who was involved in a collision with another vehicle when she drove through a red light in an emergency, saying both drivers were partially at fault.
Wisconsin law gives public employees immunity from damages caused by their acts in the scope of their job, with some exceptions. The ruling makes clear that public employees who don’t operate their vehicles with “due regard under the circumstances” can be sued.
The crash occurred when Racine Officer Amy Matsen was on her way to a traffic accident in July 2009. As she approached an intersection she slowed to 27 miles per hour, had her lights and siren on, and was occasionally sounded a bullhorn.
Eileen Legue approached the same intersection in her pickup truck with the windows up and music playing. She did not hear the police siren nor see the car, and entered the intersection with the green light.
Legue’s truck struck the driver’s side of Matsen’s police cruiser. Both women were injured in the crash.
Legue sued the city for damages, arguing that Matsen was negligent and failed to “exercise due regard.”
The city argued that Matsen exercised caution when she approached the intersection, given that she slowed down, had her lights on and her siren sounding. It said Legue had an obligation to stop for the squad car.
A jury found both parties equally at fault and awarded Legue $129,800 in damages.
A Racine County Circuit judge subsequently tossed that decision, saying the officer could not have prevented the accident except by deciding not to enter the intersection. The judge said the officer was immune because she exercised discretion when entering the intersection.
The Supreme Court disagreed in its 4-3 ruling Friday.
Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson, writing for the majority, said there was credible evidence to support the jury verdict of casual negligence on the part of the police officer. The dissenting justices agreed with the lower court judge and said the officer complied with her obligations under the law and was entitled to full immunity.
Justice Annette Ziegler, writing for the minority, said she was concerned that the ruling will make it possible for anyone involved in an accident with an emergency responder to argue that the responder didn’t exercise “due regard” and therefore is not immune from being sued.
Legue’s attorney, Tim Knurr, said justices came to the logical conclusion and the ruling won’t change how emergency responders act or result in a wave of new lawsuits.
“I really don’t think it changes anything,” Knurr said.” I don’t think it’s going to have one iota of an impact of how emergency responders operate their vehicles. None of them have a death wish.”
Matsen’s attorney, Tom Devine, was out of the office Friday and did not immediately respond to telephone and email messages.
Abrahamson was joined in the majority with justices Patrick Crooks, David Prosser and Michael Gableman. The dissenting justices were Ziegler, Ann Walsh Bradley and Pat Roggensack.