Gov. Ned Lamont’s first veto of the 2022 legislative session came this week when he rejected a bill that would have stopped Connecticut towns from using government immunity as a legal defense in cases involving negligent motor vehicle crashes.
The bill, which passed through both legislative chambers on nearly unanimous votes, was related to a 2020 state Supreme Court decision in which justices concluded that a Shelton police officer could claim immunity in the case of a 2012 car chase that resulted in an accident and the death of a teenager.
During a floor debate on the bill, Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the change would have brought municipal liability in auto accidents in line with the liability of state employees involved in car crashes.
However, in his veto message Thursday, the governor worried the change may have far-reaching consequences.
“Based on the transcript of the legislative debate it appears that the legislature adopted the parity rationale. However, it is not evident whether in doing so, the legislature fully considered that unlike the state, municipalities face greater exposure by the simple fact that they have more emergency vehicles on the roads every day,” Lamont wrote.
Limiting immunity could impact the ability of municipal employees and volunteers to operate police cruisers and fire trucks at over 300 municipal fire departments and 94 municipal police departments, Lamont said.
The governor pointed to public hearing testimony submitted by associations representing Connecticut municipal leaders.
Thomas Gerarde, a lawyer for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the bill would have chilled recruitment efforts for local volunteer fire departments by eliminating protection for those volunteers and police responding to critical situations like domestic violence calls, car accidents, and home invasions.
“Every second matters in all of these scenarios –this is why the legislature has made great effort to strike the proper balance that allows our emergency vehicles to reach the victims, or potential victims, as quickly as possible, but not at the expense of driving safely, understanding that if an emergency vehicle winds up in an accident on the way to providing help, that just makes matters worse all the way around,” Gerarde wrote.
In separate testimony, Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said the bill would have exposed local taxpayers to “significant increased liability costs.”
On the other hand, the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association supported the bill and in written testimony argued it made no sense to apply different standards of car crash liability depending on which level of government was involved. The bill attempted to address a “nonsensical and patently unfair” situation, the association wrote.
“Simply put this is a public safety issue for all citizens of this State. Do we really want municipally owned and operated motor vehicles whether they be police cars, plows or maintenance trucks driving around without having to be responsible for following the rules of the road?” the trial lawyers group wrote.
In his veto message, Lamont said municipal employees do not have discretion to disregard the law and towns may still be liable for an employee’s negligent driving. He encouraged lawmakers to consider both the recent Supreme Court case and the testimony of town leaders.
“This is a significant and complex area of the law. Before making changes in this area of the law, I suggest that legislators meet with the municipal officials and other interested parties to discuss more fully the purpose and the impact of this legislation,” Lamont wrote.
In a Friday Twitter post responding to the comment, Stafstrom, the Judiciary Committee co-chairman, said lawmakers had heard the concerns of opponents and arrived a different conclusion.
“Ummm….we did ‘meet,'” he wrote. “Municipal officials testified at the Public Hearing but were unpersuasive. The Judiciary Committee thought them wrong on the law and all but 1 legislator agreed.”