IML, firefighters unite on “public duty rule”
Thursday, Apr 28, 2016 - Posted by Rich Miller
* 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.