Injured by a police officer: How governmental immunity affects your case

Police officers put their lives on the line every day to protect Minnesota citizens. However, they are human too, and as such are capable of acting negligently and causing injury to others. Since officers on patrol spend so much time in their cruisers, they are occasionally involved in motor vehicle accidents. According to the Star Tribune, the number of squad car accidents in St. Paul has risen over the past four years, with 84 incidents occurring in 2012. Sometimes they are at fault for the crash. When someone is injured in a car accident due to the negligence of a government employee, such as a police officer, the issue of governmental immunity arises.

Elderly woman dies after being struck by police car

In August, a 101-year-old woman was crossing the street near her apartment in St. Paul when a squad car driven by a city police officer backed into her. She fell to the ground and sustained several injuries. An ambulance transported her to Regions Hospital, where she underwent surgery. However, she died five days later, never having regained consciousness. A relative informed the Star Tribune that the woman, a Russian immigrant who arrived in the United States when she was nearly 80 years old, suffered a skull fracture, a rib fracture, internal bleeding and bruising. The coroner has not yet released a specific cause of death.

The police officer involved in the collision has been in car crashes previously while on duty. There are three incidents listed in her file, two of which were declared preventable. One of the accidents took place in 2007. She received an oral reprimand after the Accident Review Board determined that she backed up into another vehicle after responding to a call.

The medical bills for the woman's care will be expensive, and a family member indicated to the media that a lawsuit may be filed in an attempt to recover those damages. If a family member does bring suit, the court will have to determine whether the officer is protected by her status as a government employee.

Official immunity

Government employees may be immune from civil lawsuits in many instances based on a legal doctrine known as official immunity. This common-law doctrine protects government officials, including police officers, from lawsuits for discretionary actions taken in the course of official duties.

The critical issue regarding whether or not immunity will be granted is the nature of the official's conduct; it must be discretionary rather than ministerial. A discretionary act requires the exercise of individual judgment while a ministerial act is absolute, certain and imperative, involving merely execution of a specific duty arising from fixed and designated facts. If an official's conduct is willful or malicious, immunity will not apply.

Police officers and emergency responders are among the government employees who may be immune from lawsuits based on motor vehicle crashes stemming from police chases or speeding ambulances. The question of immunity is specific to the facts of the case. Since the officer who backed her vehicle into the woman was backing up to leave an area after responding to a complaint rather than on her way to the scene of a crime, it is difficult to assess how a court would decide the immunity issue based on the facts.

If you have been involved in an accident due to the negligence of another driver, an attorney can discuss your rights and options with you. You should contact an experienced lawyer with any legal questions you would like answered.