Recently, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reaffirmed the wide-reaching nature of governmental immunity from negligence claims. In Seitz v. City of Prairie Du Chien, a young girl was crossing a crosswalk which lines had become faded when she was struck by an automobile and injured. Seitz alleged that the City was negligent because they had allowed the crosswalk paint to fade to the point where it was no longer visible to motorists.
On the basis of Wis. Stat. § 893.80(4), the Court of Appeals held that the City was immune. Wisconsin Statute § 893.80(4) immunizes municipalities and their employees against liability for acts that involve the exercise of discretion and judgment. The City did not have any written policies about how often the crosswalks should be repainted, and the City simply painted as needed based on the visual observations of its employees. There was no statute, code, ordinance or rule that created a duty on the City to maintain its crosswalks. The court held that crosswalk maintenance is a discretionary function.
Finally, the Seitz court evaluated whether one of the exceptions to governmental immunity – the known danger exception – applied. In situations where the nature of the danger is so obvious and compelling, the public officer has no discretion not to act, and governmental immunity falls away. The court considered that there were signs alerting drivers to the crosswalk and there was no evidence of prior accidents at the location. The court concluded that the potential danger of faded crosswalk lines did not rise to the level of known and compelling danger. The Court of Appeals held that the City was immune and dismissed Seitz’s claim against the City.
As such, a municipality’s failure to maintain a crosswalk now falls within the ever-expanding sphere of “discretionary act immunity” for government entities, their employees and their private contractors. In other words, a government employee can be 100% negligent, but so long as the nature of his duty involves “discretion,” he escapes responsibility. Even if Seitz was successful at overcoming governmental immunity, the amount she could recover from the municipality is capped by statute at $50,000.00 – a sum that is often not enough to compensate someone for their injuries.
While this case does not break new ground in governmental immunity law, it serves to highlight the complexities that can come with personal injury matters. When someone is injured, it is not as simple as finding the at-fault party and demanding fair compensation; there can be issues of immunity, insurance coverage and notice requirements. A skilled attorney can help you understand your rights and navigate these difficult waters.