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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Public Duty Rule Applied to Stormwater Damage Case

In Tzakis v. Maine Township, the Illinois Supreme Court was asked to determine whether the “public duty” rule applied to a case that had been filed before the Illinois Supreme Court abolished the rule. The public duty rule stated that local governmental entities do not owe a duty to individual members of the public when performing customary governmental duties. The Court found that although the rule had been previously abolished by the Court before the outcome of this case, a prospective application of the rule (applying the rule after it was abolished for this particular case) was appropriate to avoid substantial inequitable results for the defendants relying on the rule after years of litigation. This was a favorable outcome for the government defendants in this case. 

In Tzakis, residents of Maine Township sued the township and other local government entities after a 2008 rainstorm caused severe flooding damage. The residents claimed the damage was caused by the local government defendants neglecting to update and address drainage and structural issues with a regional storm sewer system after years of complaints. 

By August 2014, after several years of addressing procedural issues, the defendants had filed motions to dismiss the case arguing they were immune from liability under the public duty rule. By the following April, the trial court ruled that the public duty rule would be applied in this case, and the residents had not alleged sufficient facts to show liability of the defendants.

In 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court in Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection District had abolished the longstanding public duty rule. After the rule's elimination, the residents claimed that the defendants could no longer rely on the public duty rule to protect themselves from liability because the rule no longer exists. As of 2016, litigation persisted through the courts to determine whether to apply the public duty rule as it existed when the case was filed (which would protect the government defendants from liability) or follow the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling in Coleman

In these situations, Illinois courts look to three factors to determine whether a defunct rule applies prospectively to ongoing litigation:

1. whether the decision establishes a new principle of law effectively overturning existing precedent;

2. whether the history and purpose of the new rule are hindered or promoted by a prospective application; and 

3. whether a prospective application causes substantial inequitable results.

Applying these factors, the Court concluded the public duty rule should apply in this case. The Court determined that applying the public duty rule, in this case, would not frustrate the purpose of the Coleman decision. The Court also determined that applying Coleman in this case would be unfair to the government defendants since the residents’ case involved legal claims spanning over 50 years before the ruling in Coleman. Further, the government defendants had argued the public duty rule applied in the case as far back as 2010. As a result, a prospective application of the rule would prevent substantial litigation and not upend an 11-year case.

When applying the public duty rule to the claims made in this case, the Court found the government defendants were not liable for the plaintiffs' flooding damage because any duty to maintain the regional storm sewer system was a general duty to the public, and not a special duty owed the plaintiff residents individually.

Post Authored by Mike Halpin & Julie Tappendorf


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