• May 23, 2013
Photo by Adam Paris

Photo by Adam Paris

It is ironic that Living Springs Church in City of Spring Lake Park bought a building whose private water line was linked to the city’s water-distribution system, the valve from the city water to the private line shut off, but the church’s private water line uncapped in the church building.

You see where this is headed?  (Living Springs…)

 

The City of Spring Lake Park was performing maintenance on its water system, opened up the city valves.  This flooded Living Springs Church.

Unfortunately for the Church, its efforts to get the City of Spring Lake Park to pay for Living Springs’ water damage (or the city employees who opened up the valve) have come up dry.

Minnesota Court of Appeals Judge Michelle Ann Larkin reversed Anoka County District Court Judge James A. Cunningham, Jr. who had ruled in favor of the Living Springs Church.

The issue dealt with on appeal in this unpublished (and therefore non-precedential) opinion is whether the city work was entitled to “common-law official immunity” and, if so, whether the city can enjoy “vicarious immunity.”  The Court of Appeals held, “yes” and “yes.”

[T]he doctrine of common law official immunity provides that a public official charged by law with duties which call for the exercise of his judgment or discretion is not personally liable to an individual for damages unless he is guilty of a willful or malicious wrong….The purpose of official immunity is to protect public officials from the fear of personal liability that might deter independent action and impair effective performance of their duties.” Anderson v. Anoka Hennepin Indep. Sch. Dist. 11, 678 N.W.2d 651, 655 (Minn. 2004).

The issue then becomes whether identifying the valve and opening the valve were “discretionary acts” to which immunity would attach or “ministerial acts,” for which the employees would not be immune from liability.

[I]f a governmental employer’s established protocol dictates a specific action by its employee under designated circumstances, the employee’s conduct will be deemed ministerial.

In other words, if the city employees, like the valve itself is to perform a task that involves no exercise of any judgment or discretion (turning on/turning off), the conduct is ministerial and they may be liable for performing such tasks wrong (or failing to perform them). The Court of Appeals concluded, however, that “The lack of evidence regarding a protocol for identifying valves supports the conclusion that the determination is not a ministerial act.”

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