DPS received several calls about a wrong-way driver in the early morning. DPS dispatchers alerted law enforcement about the emergency, which was the highest priority-type call. Several DPS officers tried and failed to intercept the wrong-way driver. Eventually, the dispatchers contacted an officer who initiated a traffic break intended to stop the wrong-way driver by using a patrol car as a barrier. A few miles south of the traffic break, however, the wrong-way driver collided with a minivan, killing three passengers, and injuring two more and the minivan driver. Law enforcement determined that the wrong-way driver travelled at least 21 miles down the highway in the wrong direction before colliding with the minivan. The minivan driver sued, alleging that the State and its agencies had been negligent in handling the emergency. In particular, the minivan driver argued that DPS dispatchers negligently delayed contacting the DPS officer who set up the traffic break, and that had the dispatchers acted quicker, the crash would have been averted. On summary judgment, the superior court granted the State’s motion and dismissed all claims about the dispatchers because they were protected by statutory qualified immunity. After reconsideration was denied, the minivan driver appealed.
The Court of Appeals affirmed. Under A.R.S. § 12-820.02, a public employee acting in the scope of their employment cannot be held liable for the failure to make an arrest or for the failure to retain an arrested person unless the public employee intended to cause injury or was grossly negligent. It was not contended that the dispatchers were in either category. Rather, in a vacated opinion, the Court of Appeals held in 1996 that DPS dispatchers were categorically not protected by Section 12-820.02. In the intervening years, the Court of Appeals held that to determine whether a claim fell within the statute, courts should determine whether the essence of the claim was one for a failure to arrest or retain. Here, the purpose of the dispatchers contacting the officer earlier would have been to stop the driver earlier, and thus the essence of the claim was one for failure to arrest. Thus, the dispatchers were entitled to statutory qualified immunity.
Judge Brown delivered the unanimous opinion of the court. Presiding Judge Campbell and Judge Winthrop joined.
Posted by: Emma J. Cone-Roddy