In a decision that will be of interest to municipalities across the Commonwealth, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently decided the case of Justice v. Lombardo. In this case, the plaintiff (Justice) sued a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper (Trooper Lombardo) for assault, battery, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false imprisonment, stemming from Trooper Lombardo’s interactions with Justice during a traffic stop in Philadelphia. Trooper Lombardo claimed that he was acting within the scope of his employment during the traffic stop, and was therefore immune from Justice’s suit based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Justice, conversely, claimed that Trooper Lombardo was acting outside the scope of his employment as a state police officer and, therefore, could not assert immunity. At trial, the jury agreed with Justice and awarded her damages in the amount of $160,000.00. Subsequently, Trooper Lombardo filed a post-trial motion seeking a new trial on the basis that he was acting within the scope of his employment. The trial court denied the motion, finding that the jury “as the sole finder of facts” determined that Trooper Lombardo was acting outside the scope of his employment in his interaction with Justice.
On appeal, the Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court and agreed with Trooper Lombardo that his actions were within the scope of his employment. The Commonwealth Court held that “because the Pennsylvania State Police empowers Trooper Lombardo to use force when enforcing laws and making warrantless arrests, the use of force, in general, by state troopers is not unexpected.” Therefore, the Commonwealth Court held, “it was irrelevant to the scope of employment analysis whether Trooper Lombardo’s conduct was reasonable or not, intentional or not, tortious or not, or carried out for an improper purpose or not.”
In the final twist in the case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the decision of the Commonwealth Court. The Supreme Court stated that “it is simply not the law that an employee’s use of force is within the scope of employment even if it occurs, as here, after the completion of a traffic stop and unrelated to any arrest for the violation of any law.” The Supreme Court found that the decision of the Commonwealth Court would result in an expansive new rule under which any use of force by a trooper would be within the scope of employment no matter how egregious, so long as the trooper was on duty. In declining to so hold, the Supreme Court found that the jury was entitled, as the trier of fact, to review the evidence presented and determine whether or not Trooper Lombardo’s conduct during the traffic stop was within the course of his employment as a state police officer.
Although the instant case involved a state police officer, it is likely that a Court would extend the holding to a case brought against a municipal police officer and hold the officer to the same standard. It is important for municipalities to understand that there is no blanket immunity for a police officer to utilize excessive force. Rather, in any case involving a claim for an intentional tort brought against an officer, a jury will have the ability to ascertain whether or not the officer’s conduct was reasonable, and thus bringing such conduct within the scope of the officer’s employment, or excessive, thus removing it from the protective umbrella and exposing the officer (and, potentially, the municipality) to liability for damages.