Governor Ned Lamont’s first veto came in the 2022 legislative session this week when he rejected a bill that would have prevented Connecticut towns from using state immunity as a legal defense in cases involving negligent motor vehicle accidents.
The bill, which passed through both legislatures by nearly unanimous votes, was linked to a 2020 state Supreme Court decision in which judges concluded that a Chilton police officer could claim immunity in the event of a 2012 car chase that resulted in an accident and the death of a teen.
During a debate on the bill, Representative Steve Stavstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who co-chairs the Judiciary Committee, said the change would have brought municipal liability in car accidents in line with the liability of state employees involved in car accidents.
However, in a veto message Thursday, the governor expressed concern that the change could have far-reaching consequences.
“Based on the text of the legislative debate, it appears that the legislature has adopted the logic of parity. However, it is not clear whether the legislature has thus taken into account that, unlike the state, municipalities face greater exposure through the fact that they have more emergency vehicles on the roads every day,” Lamont wrote.
Lamont said the immunity reduction could affect the ability of municipal employees and volunteers to operate police cruisers and fire trucks in more than 300 municipal fire departments and 94 municipal police departments.
The governor referred to public hearing provided by associations representing Connecticut municipal leaders.
Thomas Gerrard, an attorney with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the bill would have impacted recruitment efforts for local volunteer fire departments by removing protections for these volunteers and police responding to critical situations such as domestic violence calls, car accidents and home invasions.
“Every second counts in all of these scenarios — which is why the legislator has gone to great lengths to strike the appropriate balance that allows our emergency vehicles to reach victims or potential victims as quickly as possible, but not at the expense of driving safely, and understanding that if an emergency vehicle ends up in an accident in her way to help, it just makes things worse along the way,” Gerrard wrote.
In separate testimony, Betsy Garra, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said the bill would have exposed local taxpayers to “significantly increased liability costs.”
On the other hand, the Connecticut Trial Lawyers Association supported the bill and in written testimony it argued that it did not make sense to apply different standards for auto accident liability depending on the level of government involved. The association wrote that the bill attempted to address a situation that was “clearly illogical and unfair.”
Simply put, this is a matter of public safety for all citizens of this country. Do we really want municipal owned and operated motorized vehicles, whether they’re police cars, plows or maintenance trucks that drive around without having to take on the responsibility of following the rules of the road? The trial attorney group wrote.
In his veto letter, Lamont said that municipal employees have no discretion to disregard the law and cities may still be responsible for the employee’s driving due to neglect of his driving. He encouraged lawmakers to consider both the recent Supreme Court case and the testimony of town leaders.
This is an important and complex area of law. Before making changes in this area of law, I suggest that legislators meet with municipal officials and other interested parties to fully discuss the purpose and impact of this legislation,” Lamont wrote.
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