Liability FAQ 3

Is a public official or employee indemnified by their municipality against personal liability for all of their actions while an official or employee for a municipality?

No. State law only requires a municipality to pay any judgment for damages and costs entered against a municipal official or employee for acts performed within the scope of their employment. Under Wis. Stat. sec. 895.46, municipal officials and employees will be indemnified by the municipality for negligent acts taken within the "scope of their employment." This provision has been construed to mean that the official or employee's action must have been taken, in some measure, to serve the municipal employer. Olson v. Connerly, 156 Wis.2d 488, 457 NW 2d. 479 (1990).

Once the determination is made that the official or employee was acting in the scope of employment, indemnification may apply even if the act taken is outside what the employer may have desired. Graham v. Sauk Prairie Police Comm., 915 F.2d. 1085 (7th Cir. 1990). Indemnification may also extend to cases where punitive damages are assessed. Kolar v. County of Sangamo, 756 F.2d. 564 (7th Cir. 1985).

Generally, the indemnification statute applies to most foreseeable actions taken by municipal officials and employees in the scope of their employment, including operating motor vehicles or machinery, employment and civil rights claims, environmental lawsuits and property damage claims. However, failure of an employee or officer to give notice to the municipality of an action commenced against them as soon as reasonably possible can be a bar to recovery of the costs of defending the action by the employee or officer.

Section 895.35 governs expenses in actions against municipal officers.