Local Government Immunity - What is the Future?
Authored by: Attorney Dean R. Dietrich
A recent decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court has raised a number of eyebrows (and concerns) about the future of the immunity given to local governments for legislative decisions made by the local government that may cause damages to an individual.
Under current interpretations, a local government is immune from lawsuit when making a legislative or quasi-legislative decision that becomes the basis for a suit against the municipality. In the recent decision of Alan W. Pinter v. Village of Stetsonville, 2019 WI 74 (2019), the Wisconsin Supreme Court by a slim majority upheld the principle of governmental immunity for a quasi-legislative act. The act in this case was deciding whether or not to use certain controls to address the discharge of high levels of water in the municipal wastewater system.
The dissent took a very narrow view of what constituted a legislative act and argued that the decision by the wastewater treatment plant operators could not rise to a level of a legislative act for which immunity applied. The dissent felt that the legislative immunity provision should only apply to high level policy decisions by the local government unit.
This decision is a significant warning for local government units that the law may change in the future. The protections of governmental immunity may become very narrow the next time this question is considered by the Supreme Court.