MADISON - 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.
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.
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.
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
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
The Supreme Court
disagreed in its 4-3 ruling Friday.
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.
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
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.
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
attorney, Tom Devine, was out of the office Friday and did not
immediately respond to telephone and email messages.
joined in the majority with justices Patrick Crooks, David Prosser
and Michael Gableman. The dissenting justices were Ziegler, Ann
Walsh Bradley and Pat Roggensack.