Is a City Liable for Failing to Tow Vehicle Before Hit-and-Run Accident?

March 1, 2017 | By Polito & Harrington LLC
Is a City Liable for Failing to Tow Vehicle Before Hit-and-Run Accident?

As a general rule, Connecticut law exempts state and local government employees from any liability arising from their “discretionary acts.” Basically, this means that you cannot sue the city if one of its employees is negligent, even if you could sue a private employer in similar circumstances. However, this exemption only applies to actions where the employee has discretion; you can sue a city if its employee fails to carry out a “ministerial,” or legally mandated duty.

CT Appeals Court Reverses $12 Million Personal Injury Award

The Appellate Court of Connecticut recently considered an interesting question: Is a city liable for a car accident where it failed in its legal duty to tow the responsible vehicle beforehand? A jury said yes, but the appeals court said no.

The accident in question took place in 2006. A police officer working for the City of East Haven responded to a report of a “possible domestic incident” inside a truck parked outside of a restaurant. When the officer identified the truck, he radioed the dispatch operator to run a check on its license plate.

After a brief investigation, the officer decided there was insufficient cause to pursue the domestic violence allegations any further. In the meantime, since the officer could not confirm the truck driver had a valid license, he instructed him to leave the vehicle in the parking lot. The officer gave the driver a ride home.

But about an hour later, the truck driver retrieved his vehicle. He then got into a hit-and-run accident, striking and seriously injuring an 18-year-old man who was entering his own car parked on the side of the road. Police eventually arrested the truck driver. The police also learned at this time that the truck driver was using false license plates and lacked valid insurance or registration.

The accident victim filed a personal injury lawsuit, not only against the truck driver but also the City of East Haven. The plaintiff argued the police officer was negligent in failing to tow the truck driver's vehicle after the initial stop, in direct violation of city regulations. Had the officer carried out this “ministerial” duty, the driver would never have been illegally operating his vehicle when the accident occurred.

A jury agreed with the plaintiff's reasoning and ordered the city to pay him over $12 million in damages. The judge reduced this award to $6.2 million but nonetheless denied the city's motion to set aside the verdict altogether. The city then appealed.

The Appellate Court ended up throwing out the entire verdict. In brief, the court said the city's regulations in fact afforded to police officers wide discretion “regarding vehicles that are to be towed.” While the plaintiff pointed to one paragraph in the rules that might be construed as imposing a ministerial duty, the Appellate Court said that was insufficient to “completely deprive police officers of the discretion that they are normally afforded.”

Need Help From a New London Car Accident Attorney?

While the plaintiff in this case may not recover against the city, there are many other personal injury cases where a third party may share in the legal responsibility for a car or truck accident. An experienced Waterford-New London personal injury attorney can help you with identifying such responsible parties and bringing the appropriate legal action. Contact Polito & Harrington LLC today if you would like to schedule a consultation right away.