Gov. Ned Lamont vetoed a bill Thursday that was passed in response to a Connecticut Supreme Court case affirming that a Shelton police officer’s decision to pursue a fleeing vehicle was entitled to government immunity.
In his first veto of 2022, Lamont sided with municipalities who feared that Senate Bill 204, which limited immunity in negligence cases involving a police cruiser or other municipal vehicles, was overly broad, exposing taxpayers to increased liability and creating a chilling effect on emergency responders.
“I respect that it is a policy decision well within the purview and authority of the legislature to reject the Supreme Court’s recent statutory interpretation,” Lamont wrote. “However, as written, SB 204 seems broader: it eliminates completely the doctrine of governmental immunity for a municipality in operation of a town-owned vehicle.”
The bill was drafted in response to the court’s 2020 decision in Borelli v. Renaldi, a lawsuit filed by the family of a 15-year-old passenger in a Mustang that crashed and rolled over after a brief pursuit by a police officer in 2012.
Municipal employees do not have the discretion to disregard motor vehicles laws, and municipalities can be liable for their negligence. Emergency responders are permitted to disregard certain traffic laws but still have a duty to drive “with due regard for the safety of all persons and property.”
An issue in Borrelli was whether state law required police officers to weigh the dangerousness of a pursuit before deciding to give chase, as opposed to deciding whether to end a pursuit based on conditions. The law, the court concluded, intended greater latitude for discretionary decisions made by emergency responders.
Supporters of the bill, including the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association, said it would conform the standards for municipal liability in motor vehicle crashes with state liability. The lawyers said municipal governments currently enjoy greater immunity than the state.
“There is no valid reason or justification for failing to mirror this exception for municipally owned and operated motor vehicles,” the trial lawyers said in public hearing testimony.
Lamont acknowledged the difference of opinion over what the bill would do but said his fear was the measure had gone too far.
“This is a significant and complex area of the law,” Lamont said. “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.”
The bill passed on a vote of 140-1 in the House and 32-0 in the Senate, but the legislature typically does not attempt overrides when governors raise issues of potential flaws and essentially invite the legislature to try again.
As of Thursday night, the governor had signed 125 bills and vetoed one.