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Home / Opinion Digests / Va. Cir.: Qualified immunity doesn’t bar gross negligence

Va. Cir.: Qualified immunity doesn’t bar gross negligence

A Norfolk police officer was immune from negligence claims arising from his operation of a marine vessel that capsized, but claims against him asserting gross negligence could go to trial.


In January 2014, the City of Norfolk contracted with Willard Marine Inc. for modifications and repairs to the City’s marine patrol vessel Marine 5. In accordance with the contract, Plaintiffs Timothy J. Pridemore and David I. Glover (two Willard employees) brought the vessel to the Willoughby Bay boat ramp in Norfolk to conduct a sea trial.

The contract required the sea trial to be performed with a Norfolk Harbor Patrol representative onboard. Thus, Norfolk police officer Defendant Richard J. Hryniewich was on the vessel and in fact operated it during the sea trial. For reasons that are in dispute, the vessel capsized during the sea trial.

The Plaintiffs filed suits against Hryniewich and the City seeking recovery for alleged injuries stemming from the capsizing. After further pleadings, the court determined that the City is immune from all liability and Hryniewich is immune from claims of simple negligence. The court further determined that Hryniewich may be entitled to qualified immunity as well. The Plaintiffs have moved for the court to reconsider the latter ruling, and both parties have moved for summary judgment.

Qualified immunity

The court previously held that immunity under state law, as a jurisdictional matter, applied to the parties in the case at bar. Thus, although the court recognizes that state courts are generally to apply maritime law as if the case had been filed in federal court, there are certain situations to which state law applies — including threshold jurisdictional questions.

Given that qualified immunity is a threshold jurisdictional question involving whether the defendant is immune from suit, rather than a mere defense to liability, the court reiterates that the application of state law is appropriate. Further, it would be inconsistent to apply state law immunity at the outset of this litigation only to later apply federal qualified immunity as a defense to the remaining claims.

That the application of state law results in different outcomes in state and federal court, even pursuant to maritime law, is not novel, and the court is guided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Welch v. Tex. Dep’t of Highways and Public Transportation, 482 U.S. 468 (1987).

The court finds no reason to disrupt its prior ruling on qualified immunity and, accordingly, only gross negligence claims are viable in these suits. The court denies Hryniewich’s motion for summary judgment on these claims.


Judicial economy requires that litigants have one, and only one, full and fair opportunity to argue a question of law, as the time required to hear a litigant reargue a question is taken from other litigants who are waiting to be heard.

Here, the Plaintiffs ask the court to reconsider its decision holding that state-law immunity is available to the City and to Hryniewich. But they provide no new evidence, instead simply rearguing their prior position that state-law immunity is unavailable. Accordingly, the Plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration is denied.

Pridemore v. Hryniewich, Case Nos. CL16-3261-00 and CL16-3262-00, Feb. 16, 2018. Norfolk Cir. Ct. (Lannetti). VLW No. 018-8-016, 6 pp.

VLW 018-8-016