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Monday, February 1, 2016

Illinois Supreme Court Abolishes Public Duty Rule

Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court issued an opinion that will affect how local governments defend lawsuits involving the provision of governmental services. In Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection Dist., 2016 IL 117952, the Illinois Supreme Court abolished the long established common-law "public duty rule." That rule provided that a local government entity and its employees owe no duty of care to individual members of the public to provide governmental services (including police and fire protection services). 

In 2008, a 911 call came into the Will County 911 operator from Coretta Coleman who claimed she could not breathe and needed an ambulance. Will County dispatch transferred the call to Orland Central Dispatch, and hung up the phone as soon as Orland responded. The Orland dispatcher received no response to questions to the caller, and called an ambulance to go to the address. An East Joliet Fire Protection District ambulance arrived at the residence, but there was no response to knocks on the door. Neighbors explained that an elderly couple lived in the home, and the woman would be unlikely to answer the phone. The responders determined that a forced entry could not be made, and left after reporting to dispatch that there was no patient. Neighbors then called 911 and a second ambulance was dispatched. Shortly after the second ambulance arrived, Coretta's husband came home and let the responders into the home. Coretta was found unresponsive, and later died of cardiac arrest.

The husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the District, the County, and the dispatchers. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing they owed no duty to Coretta under the public duty rule and, even if they did owe a duty, they were immune from liability under the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Systems Act because their conduct was not willful and wanton. The defendants also asserted absolute liability. The trial court and appellate court ruled in favor of the defendants under the public duty rule. Coleman appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court first reviewed the origins of the common law "public duty rule." The court found the rule was grounded in the principal that local government owes a duty to the community as a whole, and not to individual members of the community. The court acknowledged the rule was long-standing and widely accepted. However, the court noted that over time, a number of exceptions to that rule had been developed by courts, including the "special duty exception." The court also noted that the Illinois legislature had enacted a comprehensive scheme of immunity to protect local governments.

The court concluded that "the time has come to abandon the public duty rule and its special duty exception."  The court gave 3 reasons for abolishing the public duty rule:

First, the court held that case law had been inconsistent in applying the rule and its exceptions. In many cases, courts had skipped the duty analysis altogether and gone right to addressing the issue of whether the questioned government actions were protected by statutory immunity.

Second, the court held that the public duty rule was incompatible with the statutory grant of limited immunity in cases of willful and wanton conduct. The court acknowledged that in some cases, courts have precluded a plaintiff from pursuing a case of action for willful and wanton misconduct because the plaintiff could not first establish that the government had a duty to plaintiff.

Third, the court determined that the legislature's enactment of statutory immunity protection had rendered the public duty rule unnecessary. 

This ruling will certainly impact how future Illinois courts consider and decide cases involving claims against local government in its provision of governmental services.

Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf


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