Lawsuits against the State of Connecticut or its local municipalities are notoriously difficult to pursue from a legal perspective, in large part due to various statutory protections and administrative hurdles put in place by the legislature. For example, a plaintiff seeking to initiate a personal injury case against his/her own town must adhere to strict time limitations and procedural requirements in order to have his/her case successfully get into court and survive the scrutiny of a judge, well before he/she ever comes close to having a “day in court” before a jury of his/her peers.
Unless the site of a plaintiff’s injury falls within one of a few narrow exceptions (such as an injury on a “public highway,” which would invoke the protections and mechanisms of Connecticut’s “highway defect statute,” or Connecticut General Statutes Section 13a-149), a plaintiff is entitled only to proceed against a state or municipality under the Political Subdivision Liability Statute (Connecticut General Statutes Section 52-557n).
Section 52-557n, however, contains its own pitfalls for prospective plaintiffs. The statute provides that a town or political subdivision may be liable for negligent acts of its employees, officers, or agents except if such actions or omissions constitute criminal conduct or willful misconduct, or, significantly, if such negligent acts or omissions require the exercise of judgment or discretion as an official function of the job responsibility.
The latter part of this test is key – and is a gold mine for municipalities (and their lawyers) seeking to invoke the governmental immunity doctrine and escape liability for the negligence of its employees, even if such negligence is established by an injured person. What the provision states, in plain language, is that a town may well be free and clear from liability if the task that was performed negligently was a task that required an exercise of judgment on the part of the town employee.
Take the hypothetical example of a plaintiff who was injured when she slipped on ice on the front steps of City Hall. The evidence suggests that the maintenance workers either knew or should have known that ice had built up on the steps, that they were expecting the public to be walking in and out of the building, and that someone clearly “dropped the ball” in making sure that the ice was scraped off and that salt or sand was applied generously to the area.
Instead, nothing was done, nothing was scraped, no sand or salt was used, no warning signs were posted, and the ice remained for several business days before this plaintiff came along and fell on her very first visit to City Hall.
Arguments for the Plaintiff vs. the City
Even with these simplified facts (which appear at first blush to be quite damaging to the City), the City will surely investigate the existence of any policy, procedure, and practice of those maintenance workers who were assigned to the front steps of the building. In this case, the City will attempt to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that “judgment” and “discretion” of the City employees were required to be exercised to keep those steps free of snow and ice.
On the contrary, a plaintiff will seek to demonstrate that the actions (or omissions) of the City workers were “ministerial” – that is, the workers had a clear directive to do something (e.g. to clear the ice at certain times, in a certain manner, with no exercise of judgment) and yet they failed to carry out that task, resulting in the plaintiff’s injury.
When the proverbial dust settles, if no clear, articulated policy existed to clear the steps, to inspect the steps on a scheduled basis, or to take preventative measures against ice buildup, a municipal defendant in this instance would likely argue (perhaps successfully) that the maintenance workers were required not to follow any protocol, but only to “use their judgment and discretion” in determining what needed to be kept safe and clear for pedestrian traffic.
How to Approach Cases Against a State or Local Municipality
An unknowing plaintiff (or perhaps an inexperienced attorney) who advances her case against a town believing that a jury would be shocked if there is no snow removal policy might find herself equally shocked when or if it is determined that any negligence was of a “discretionary” nature and governmental immunity therefore applies, subject to other very narrow legal exceptions not discussed here.
A savvy plaintiff, in discovery and at the very outset of the lawsuit, might request that the town admit, under oath and in writing, to the existence of a clear and articulated policy (even if it is unwritten) with regard to the safety issue which resulted in her injury. While towns (and their attorneys) are often eager to show that preventative measures are and were in place, in this instance, they may well eliminate – as a matter of law – their own sacred protection of governmental immunity at trial.
With a valid legal admission of a clear and articulated policy, a municipal defendant is effectively hamstrung – it cannot simultaneously admit to the existence of a policy and directive while claiming that its employees were simply exercising their own judgment. Dramatically and emphatically, the curtain of governmental immunity draws away, paving the way for a plaintiff to reach the eyes and ears of a jury.
An injured person seeking legal assistance as against the state or a municipality faces a virtual hornet’s nest of obstacles and legal entanglements. A trusted, informed advocate is essential to place such a claim in the best possible legal position. The invitation is open to consulting with attorneys at our firm who are experienced in this type of civil litigation.
If you have questions regarding any personal injury matter, contact Joseph Maya and the other experienced attorneys at our Westport, CT office at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.