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IML, firefighters unite on “public duty rule”

Thursday, Apr 28, 2016

* First, a bit of background

The [Illinois] Supreme Court’s decision came in a case involving the 2008 death of Coretta Coleman in unincorporated Will County.

Coleman, 58, called 911 because she was having difficulty breathing. There was a series of delays and miscommunication among emergency personnel, and by the time Coleman’s husband arrived home and let paramedics in, more than 40 minutes had passed. She was found unresponsive inside and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Coleman’s family sued the East Joliet and Orland fire protection districts, Will County, and their employees who were involved in the response.

Citing the public duty rule, lower courts ruled in favor of the defendants. But the high court overruled them in a 4-3 decision, abolishing the rule it had established in previous decisions.

* From the 4-3 majority opinion

We believe that departing from stare decisis and abandoning the public duty rule and its special duty exception is justified for three reasons: (1) the jurisprudence has been muddled and inconsistent in the recognition and application of the public duty rule and its special duty exception; (2) application of the public duty rule is incompatible with the legislature’s grant of limited immunity in cases of willful and wanton misconduct; and (3) determination of public policy is primarily a legislative function and the legislature’s enactment of statutory immunities has rendered the public duty rule obsolete.

* From the spirited dissent

To summarize, then, the compelling new reasons that Justice Kilbride gives for departing from stare decisis and abandoning the long-standing public duty rule are that (1) the rule lends itself to the use of a common analytical tool and (2) the rule is incompatible with statutory provisions that have been on the books for decades and that this court has repeatedly held have nothing to do with the public duty rule. Neither of these reasons is credible, let alone convincing. And this matters, because the importance of stare decisis is that it “permits society to presume that fundamental principles are established in the law rather than in the proclivities of individuals.” Chicago Bar Ass’n, 161 Ill. 2d at 510. That being the case, if the reasons proffered by Justice Kilbride are sufficient to justify a departure from stare decisis in this case, then we may as well abandon the stare decisis doctrine altogether. Because if they are good enough, then anything is good enough, and we need not waste our time going through the motions of what will essentially have become a hollow exercise.

* The Illinois Municipal League and the firefighters are pushing to enshrine the “public duty” concept into law

“This legislation provides a legal umbrella for both our citizens and the first-responders who are sworn to protect them,” said Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Firefighters of Illinois. “Never should a first-responder have to worry about the legal ramifications of an effort to save a life. It’s re-establishing a principle we’ve been operating under for many years.”

Cole said the principle is that police and firefighters have a duty to protect the public at large, but not specific members of the public. […]

“Absent making these changes, we believe we’re going to create an environment where there’s going to be a cottage industry of frivolous lawsuits aiming to capitalize on the suffering of others,” Devaney said. […]

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association is opposed to the legislation the Municipal League wants approved. ITLA president Perry Browder said the proposed law could extend immunity to situations where there clearly was misconduct by a police officer or firefighters. He also said municipalities are already protected by other immunity laws.

* From the legislation

The public duty rule is an important doctrine that is grounded in the principle that the duty of a local 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. […]

A local governmental entity and its employees owe no duty of care to individual members of the general public to provide governmental services.

Your thoughts?

- Posted by Rich Miller        


23 Comments
  1. - Ghost - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 12:42 pm:

    I think there shoild be a willfull and wanton exception, BUT it needs tightened up. the courts have allowed extreme malfeasance to be the same, and i dont agree. I think it requires intentional conduct to jot save somone, not carelessness or ineptness. because hindsight is always 20/20. a goodfaith effort however poorly executed shoild be peotected. intentional conduct not to help someone should not.


  2. - The anti-trib - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 12:55 pm:

    The sky is always falling….looks like the IML sucked the firefighters in. These cases are far and few between. Tort immunity covers municipalities and their employees 99% of the time.


  3. - Ghost - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:00 pm:

    i blew an opportunity here for a veiled fahrenheit 451 reference….


  4. - OneMan - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:06 pm:

    Guess I am not seeing how you have a duty to we but not a duty to me as it were.


  5. - PublicServant - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:13 pm:

    Blanket amnesty from legitimate claims of negligence and/or dereliction of duty is not appropriate. If you’re doing your job, you’ve got nothing to worry about. If you’re not, you deserve to be sued and lose.


  6. - JackD - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:15 pm:

    Ghost; the Illinois courts have never defined “willful and wanton” as only intentional.


  7. - Jake From Elwood - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:26 pm:

    Love the dissent in this opinion by the old Bears kicker Bob Thomas. It is fiery and minces no words.
    The trend in other states is to weaken governmental immunities. However, this really isn’t a tort immunity issue, but a issue of what duty that first responders owe to specific members of the public.
    I am in favor of codifying the public duty rule.


  8. - Steve Schnorf - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:37 pm:

    How would you like to run for reelection with that last paragraph as your platform?


  9. - Rich Miller - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:44 pm:

    Schnorf, that could be why he has no co-sponsors.


  10. - wordslinger - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:51 pm:

    –A local governmental entity and its employees owe no duty of care to individual members of the general public to provide governmental services.–

    That’s insane. That’s a governmental argument for anarchy.


  11. - Chicagonk - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 1:54 pm:

    In light of how the Illinois courts have expanded the “willful and wanton” carve-out in the statutory tort immunity act, Illinois basically gave yet one more handout to the trial lawyers in this state.


  12. - The anti-trib - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 2:11 pm:

    Chicagonk-

    Proof please?


  13. - L.A. - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 2:13 pm:

    and why the bill is going nowhere fast


  14. - Jake From Elwood - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 2:22 pm:

    This is hardly “Anarchy in the I.L.”

    The public duty rule provides that the governmental unit owes a duty to provide its services to the public at large, but not to individual members of the public. This common law rule only applied in cases where a police officer or firefighter never initiated service because there was an exception known as the “special duty” clause. A police officer or firefighter cannot be expected to have a duty to guarantee the safety and well being of each and every citizen in an emergency, but when that public safety officer does initiate aid, this public duty rule would not apply and the willful and wanton standard of tort immunity would be instead applied as the legal standard of liability.

    Not the simplest concept to understand.


  15. - wordslinger - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 2:50 pm:

    –Not the simplest concept to understand.–

    I guess I’m just thick.

    –The public duty rule provides that the governmental unit owes a duty to provide its services to the public at large, but not to individual members of the public.–

    I weep to think of all the weasels that had to die to provide the words for that sentence.


  16. - Ghost - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 3:19 pm:

    JackD thats why i said if its shored up 😀


  17. - Stu - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 3:29 pm:

    It’s sad that a SWAT team will kick in the door and take-down a teen-aged video gamer, but a senior is left helpless because nobody answered the paramedic’s knock.


  18. - cover - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 3:32 pm:

    = Not the simplest concept to understand. =

    If I interpreted that correctly, there is a legal difference between “we don’t have the resources to respond” vs. “we tried to respond but were incompetent”. I can at least respect the former as a potential defense/immunity, but the latter should not be.


  19. - Anonymous - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 3:46 pm:

    The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a similar fashion. Notice you no longer see “to serve and protect” on the side of police cars. They have ruled police have no duty to the individual, only society as a whole. Sorta makes a compelling argument for CCW since your safety is your own responsibility.


  20. - Anonymous - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 3:54 pm:

    One need only google the oathe’s of office police and firefighters take. The police oath has changed to reflect the Supreme Court decision, firefighters has not, they still swear to protect the lives and property of the citizens. Oh how bathrooms and oathe’s are going to change in short order! Who doesn’t love politics!


  21. - Ahoy! - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 4:00 pm:

    –ITLA president Perry Browder said the proposed law could extend immunity to situations where there clearly was misconduct by a police officer or firefighters. –

    Ok, so what does Perry suggest be changed that removes this concern? Or is this just the trial lairs wanting more reasons to sue taxpayers?


  22. - Anon221 - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 4:27 pm:

    A society as a whole cannot be made without individuals.

    I agree with wordslinger on the insanity of the last paragraph, and (hopefully it will remain so) the sanity of no co-sponsors. Let this be a Century Club nomination.


  23. - Payback - Thursday, Apr 28, 16 @ 4:37 pm:

    Some rare insights into how governmental entities think here if you read what’s hidden in plain sight:

    “…the legislature’s enactment of statutory immunities has rendered the public duty rule obsolete.” No one is mentioning that generally you have ONE year to sue an employee of government in Illinois, not TWO as for every other tort. That good old boy bonus alone from the legislature has protected thousands of police criminals from due process.

    “…the proposed law could extend immunity to situations where there clearly was misconduct by a police officer or firefighters.” That’s the purpose. Which is nonsense since local and state govt. pay for the legal defense, civil and criminal, of police employees most of the time anyway. Now firefighters are trying to get in on the act. Where does it end if no one is liable under the law, and everyone is above the law?

    This type of nonsense is why some Chicago Alderman are going to look at removing unlimited legal defense from the C.P.D. union contract in 2017.


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