Connecticut Supreme Court Affirms Appellate Court Decision Reversing a $6.2 Million Judgment
On January 17, 2019, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued an important decision on governmental immunity for Connecticut municipalities. In Ventura v. Town of East Haven, an appeal handled for the Town by Aaron Bayer and Tadhg Dooley of Wiggin and Dana, LLP, the Supreme Court affirmed an Appellate Court decision reversing a $6.2 million judgment against East Haven. The judgment was based on a police officer's failure to tow a vehicle that had invalid registration and the wrong license plates. That vehicle subsequently struck the plaintiff, causing him serious injuries. The trial court had held that the Town was not protected by governmental immunity, because the police officer had a “ministerial duty” to tow the vehicle based on police department towing rules. A jury awarded the plaintiff $12.2 million, which was later reduced to $6.2 million. In reversing, the Appellate Court held that the towing rules did not impose a ministerial duty on police officers and the Town was therefore entitled to governmental immunity.
In the Supreme Court, the plaintiff argued principally that the Appellate Court erred in deciding whether the towing rules imposed a ministerial duty as a matter of law, rather than leaving it for the jury as the trial court had done. The plaintiff relied on earlier cases in which the Court had stated that “the determination of whether official acts or omissions are ministerial or discretionary is normally a question of fact for the fact finder.” The Town urged the Court to reject that position and confirm that immunity, including the issue of ministerial duty, is a question of law for the court. In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court did exactly that, holding that “the issue of whether a statute, regulation or other provision of law creates a ministerial duty ordinarily presents a question of law to be decided by the court” and “expressly disavow[ing]” the language of previous decisions suggesting otherwise. This important clarification will make it easier for municipalities to raise the defense of governmental immunity before trial. The decision is the latest of several cases handled by Bayer and Dooley in which the Supreme Court has strengthened the doctrine of governmental immunity.
Aaron Bayer is a litigation partner and the head of the firm's Education Practice Group. Mr. Bayer chaired the firm's Appellate Practice from 2003-2009. He has briefed and argued numerous cases before state and federal appeals courts in Connecticut and other states around the country. Mr. Bayer served as Deputy Attorney General of Connecticut from 1991-2000, overseeing the work of the Office's 200 attorneys and managing the Office's most complex and politically sensitive cases. He has been recognized for his appellate work in Best Lawyers in America and Benchmark Litigation.