A fire chief lawyer's take on public duty doctrine

A new Illinois law claims responders will no longer have immunity from lawsuits brought by individuals who accuse them of not providing the proper level of response


By Phil Stittleburg

This "public duty" case is interesting. First off, it's important to bear in mind that the ruling does not dispose of the case or say that the plaintiffs win. It simply says that the defendants cannot use this particular defense and the case may still proceed to trial.

Also, this is only a reversal of a common law (read "court-made") doctrine, which means that the legislature could restore it and several states have done just that. All of this is not to say that the public duty doctrine isn't a good thing for firefighters, though. In fact, it does provide another level of protection from liability that allows us to do the job we're trained for without being constantly in fear of a lawsuit.

Nationwide, there is a trend toward allowing more access to the courtroom and permitting plaintiffs to make their argument to a jury. This movement makes statutory immunity laws ever more important. All states have laws regulating the circumstances under which a governmental unit can be sued and for how much.

Even more important, at least most of them also statutorily require the governmental unit to provide its employees, including firefighters, with a defense and pay any judgment entered against them.

In summary, then, this case, which of course provides no binding precedent outside of Illinois, has eliminated a valuable defense, but other important protections remain in place.

 

About the author
Phil Stittleburg is a lawyer, fire chief and past chairman of both the National Volunteer Fire Council and the National Fire Protection Association.

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