Ill. Supreme Court kills rule protecting fire, police, EMS from lawsuits

Responders will no longer have blanket immunity from lawsuits brought by individuals who accuse them of not providing the proper level of protection or response

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Illinois Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to discard a rule that protects fire, police and ambulance services accused of failing to provide a level of response from lawsuits.

Cook County Record reported that justices Thomas Kilbride, Anne Burke, Charles Freeman and Mary Jane Thesis came together to abolish the public duty rule. Chief Justice Rita Garman, Robert Thomas and Lloyd Karmeier joined in a dissent to the majority position.

"We conclude that the underlying purposes of the public duty rule are better served by application of conventional tort principles and the immunity protection afforded by statutes than by a rule that precludes a finding of a duty on the basis of the defendant’s status as a public entity," Kilbride wrote in the lead opinion. "Accordingly, we hereby abolish the public duty rule and its special duty exception. Therefore, in cases where the legislature has not provided immunity for certain governmental activities, traditional tort principles apply."

The case arose after the East Joliet Fire Protection District was sued by the family of a woman who died in her home in 2008 when paramedics were unable to quickly render aid as she experienced respiratory problems.

Per the protocol at the time the initial 911 call was transferred from the county dispatch center to a municipal dispatch. The municipal dispatcher could not get accurate information from the patient.

First arriving paramedics went to the house but received no response to knocks on the door and shouts of their presence. They couldn’t force entry unless police were present, so the first ambulance left the scene. A number of neighbors called 911 to report the departure.

Another ambulance was dispatched to the scene and the woman’s husband let them in 41 minutes after the initial 911 call. The woman was found unresponsive and was later pronounced dead at a hospital.

Her husband then sued, alleging misconduct and negligence. A judge, however, dismissed the lawsuit saying the EMS agency was protected by the public duty rule. The finding was upheld by an appellate court.

The rule dated back to the 19th century and held that local municipalities are presumed to "owe no duty to individual members of the general public to provide adequate government services, such as police and fire protection."

However, a majority of the Supreme Court justices agreed the rule needed to go. Dissenting justices blasted the majority for abandoning long-established legal precedent upholding the public duty rule without any new "compelling legal rationale."

"Local public entities often provide needed services for their communities where the risk of potential liability to individuals would discourage local public entities from providing those services," Thomas said.

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