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SD Law Blog: Defendant's Status as Municipality Employee Does Not Preclude Liability

Jeff Cole
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Partner at Zimmer, Duncan & Cole

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Jeff Cole
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In Salzer v. Barff, released on December 15, 2010, the South Dakota Supreme Court held that the two-year statute of limitations that prohibits filing lawsuits for personal injury or wrongful death against municipalities more than two years after the date of the accident does not apply to lawsuits against the individual employees of a municipality. Instead, the normal three-year statute of limitations applies to lawsuits against municipality employees. 

Michelle Salzer was hit by Officer Barff who ran a red light while responding to an emergency call.  The officer did not have his siren activated.  Almost three years later, Salzer brought a suit against the city of Sturgis and Barff.  The lawsuit against the City was dismissed.  The sole issue facing the Court was whether SDCL 9-24-5 prevented Barff, an employee of the municipality, from being sued as a result of his status as a municipality employee.

Salzer argued that her lawsuit against Barff was unrelated to Barff’s status as a municipal employee.  Barff contended that the statute applied because a municipality can act only through its employees.  The Court examined the plain language of the statute, and concluded that the legislature only intended the statute to apply to municipalities as organizations, and was not intended to cover individual employees. 

The Court’s conclusion is sound both in its clear reading of the statute, and from a more common-sense perspective.  The purpose behind the shorter statute of limitations that applies to municipalities is that is decreases liability, and allows for faster notice of lawsuits. Barff had argued that a municipality can act only through its employees, but such an argument was somewhat off target.  The statute was designed to protect the municipality as a party to a lawsuit, not as an actor or agent.  Although Barff happened to be a city employee when he ran the stop sign, Salzer was suing him not as a municipality, but as an individual defendant for negligence. 

Something to take away from this case is the fact that when someone injures you, especially in a car accident, you have several options for choosing who to sue.  Imagine a made-up company, “Acme.”  Acme’s truck driver runs a stop sign and hits your car.  At this point, you could likely sue the truck driver individually, but you would also likely sue his employer, Acme.  Imagine further that perhaps the stop sign was obstructed or difficult to view.  Then perhaps you would have a meritorious lawsuit against the city or town.  Liability can take many forms, and, according to statute, you have different statutes of limitation to sue different parties.  If you have been injured, it is wise to find an attorney who has the experience to know who to sue, and, more importantly, when

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