Iowa Court of Appeals Rejects City’s Claim for Emergency Response Immunity
In a recent decision, the Iowa Court of Appeals overturned a summary judgment ruling in favor of the City of Dubuque on a claim arising out of a Dubuque police officer’s collision with a family’s vehicle. McClellan v. City of Dubuque et al., 2019 WL 2375244 (Iowa Ct. App. June 5, 2019). In this case, Dubuque Police Officer, Pablo Ramirez, was dispatched to the scene of an assault in progress. Under Dubuque’s response classification system, this was dispatched as a “Code 1” emergency response. Officer Ramirez activated his vehicle’s emergency lights and sirens and responded to the call. Shortly after being dispatched, the call was downgraded to a “Code 2” rapid response. Under the City of Dubuque’s policy, both “Code 1” and “Code 2” responses “would generally fall under the definition of an ‘Emergency Call’ as defined in Iowa Code section 321.231.” In response to the code downgrade, Officer Ramirez turned off his emergency lights and sirens. Moments later, Ramirez’ vehicle collided with the McClellan vehicle allegedly injuring occupants inside the McClellan vehicle.
The McClellans sued the City and Officer Ramirez for the damages they and their minor child incurred as a result of the collision. The City and Officer Ramirez alleged they were entitled to “emergency response” immunity under Iowa Code section 670.4(1)(k). Under this Code section, cities and city employees are immune from liability for any acts or omissions in connection with an emergency response. The district court granted the City and Officer Ramirez’ motion for summary judgment.
On appeal, the Iowa Court of Appeals overturned the summary judgment in favor of the City and Officer Ramirez. In reaching its determination, the Court of Appeals determined that because Officer Ramirez had turned off his lights and sirens just prior to the collision, he was not entitled to the protections of Iowa Code section 321.231 which shields emergency vehicles from liability for collisions caused unless their actions were reckless. Having determined that 321.231 did not apply, the Court of Appeals determined the appropriate standard to apply in this case was a negligence standard rather than a recklessness standard. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the summary judgment ruling and sent the case back to the district court for trial.
This is an interesting case because it deals with the intersection of two statutes that are very important to municipalities and first responders, Iowa Code sections 321.231 and 670.4. The Court of Appeals determined that because section 321.231 is an express statute dealing with emergency response vehicles, the City and officer could be liable under that section even though the Court of Appeals expressly determined the Officer was responding to an emergency call at the time of the collision which would ordinarily provide immunity to the City and Officer under 670.4(1)(k). Historically, Iowa Courts have taken a broad view of the emergency response immunity in favor of cities and their employees. Statutory and common law immunities are strong shields against liability for municipalities and their employees. This case is a good reminder for municipalities and first responders to review their policies, procedures, and training with respect to emergency responses.
If you have questions or need advice relating to municipal liability, police officer liability, governmental immunities, or other litigation matters, please contact Gary D. Goudelock Jr. at 515-558-0189.