Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Prot. Dist., (In Re Estate of Coleman), 2016 IL 11792 (Ill. 2016); Opinion filed January 22, 2016 Illinois Supreme Court
In a case that could well effect local governments, a divided Illinois Supreme Court abolished the long-standing Public Duty Rule which protected government employees from lawsuits arising out of their governmental duties. Having its origins in English common law, the Public Duty Rule essentially says that no individual can state a cause of action against a governmental employee for failure to do his or her job appropriately.
In Coleman, the Plaintiff filed a wrongful death action against several defendants, including a fire district, its ambulance crew and its 911 operator. Plaintiff asserted the defendants’ negligent and/or willful and wanton acts deprived Coleman’s chance of survival. Specifically, Plaintiff claimed that 911 operators and emergency response personnel failed to respond in a timely and appropriate manner to Ms. Coleman’s call informing 911 operators that she could not breathe and needed an ambulance immediately. Plaintiff also claimed that if the responders would have followed protocol, Coretta Coleman would not have died prior to their eventual arrival.
Defendants asserted the Public Duty Rule, along with other defenses, claiming that the Public Duty Rule granted them immunity from Plaintiff’s lawsuit. In the Illinois Supreme Court’s 4-3 opinion, the majority abolished the Public Duty Rule. Although, the Court discussed various reasons for its holding, the Court based its opinion on the grounds that statutory immunity, provided by the Tort Immunity Act, is incompatible and conflicting with the common law Public Duty Rule. The Public Duty Rule is grounded in the principle that the duty of the governmental entity to preserve the well-being of the community is owed to the public at large rather than to specific members of the community. However, the Tort Immunity Act provides recovery against governmental entities in cases involving willful and wanton misconduct. The majority explained that the legal system has muddled the application of the Public Duty Rule, and, ultimately, public policy is within the power of the legislature, not the courts.
In the dissenting opinion, three Illinois Supreme Court Justices disagreed with overturning a long-standing precedent which provided public entities with legal certainty, particularly when the statutory immunity and the common law coexisted without any conflict.