Illinois Supreme Court Abolishes the State’s Long-Standing Common Law Public Duty Rule

The Illinois Supreme Court has reversed a decision by a trial judge and the Illinois Appellate Court that dismissed a lawsuit against the East Joliet Fire Protection District regarding the death of Coretta Coleman. Her family claimed that the defendant, East Joliet Fire Protection District and its ENTs, were both negligent and willful and wanton in their conduct for choosing not to respond to a 911 call.

Coleman had called an ambulance by 911 because she was having difficulty breathing. This happened in June 2008. She gave the 911 dispatcher her address and told the person to “hurry.”  The 911 dispatcher asked Coleman to hold and transferred the call from the Will County dispatch to the Orland Central dispatch.

Deviating from written protocol, the Will County dispatch hung up after making a transfer without communicating to Orland Central dispatch the nature of the emergency. When Orland Central dispatch attempted to ask Coleman questions, it received no response and did not know whether the call was dropped or if Coleman was still on the line. The Orland Central dispatch staffer hung up and placed the call in line for an ambulance dispatch.

Eventually, the paramedics did come to the Coleman residence although it was more than 40 minutes after Coleman made the initial 911 call. The paramedics found Coleman unresponsive. Coleman was pronounced dead at the hospital from cardiac arrest brought on by a rapid onset of pulmonary edema.

On the defendant’s motion to dismiss based on various Illinois statutes that provide immunity to local government entities, the trial court granted the motions as to the negligence count but denied the defendants’ dismissal of the willful and wanton counts because the statutes they relied on allow for possible liability based on such conduct.

Subsequently, the trial judge granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on the plaintiff’s willful and wanton counts, holding that defendants owed no duty to Coleman under the public duty rule. The appellate court affirmed.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed both the trial judge and the appellate court decisions asking whether the public duty rule remained viable. The court concluded that it was time to abandon the public duty rule recognizing that it was departing from the doctrine of stare decisis, which “expresses the policy of the courts to stand by precedents and not to disturb settled points.”

The Supreme Court’s reason for abandonment of the public duty rule was based on the fact that there had been consistent applications of it by Illinois courts. The courts have often written that the duty analysis in such a case is irrelevant where immunity applies. The immunity analysis would be irrelevant when there is no duty in the first place. The court said “putting the ‘immunity cart’ before the ‘duty horse’ caused applications of these concepts to become muddled, confusing and unduly complicated.”

Secondly, the Supreme Court found that the public duty rule precluded the plaintiff in bringing a claim for willful and wanton conduct, which improperly contravened clear legislative intent to allow recovery against the public entity involving willful and wanton conduct. Therefore, the application of the rule was incompatible with the legislator’s grant of limited immunity.

The third given reason was that the court determined that the public policy is a legislative function and that the public policy behind the public duty rule had been superseded by the legislature’s enactment of statutory immunities, rendering the rule obsolete.

There was a dissent filed with the majority opinion maintaining that the court departed from the doctrine of stare decisis in abolishing the public duty rule.

Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection District, 2016 IL 117952 (2016).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling wrongful death cases, truck accident cases, car accident cases, bicycle accident cases, motorcycle accident cases, premises liability cases, product defect cases and nursing home negligence cases for individuals and families who have been injured or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas including, Riverdale, Harvey, South Holland, Burbank, Bedford Park, Sauk Village, Palos Hills, Hickory Hills, Countryside, Elk Grove Village, Country Club Hills, Clarendon Hills, Yorkfield, Hillside, Villa Park, Chicago (Bridgeport, Polish Village, Mayfair, North Park, Albany Park, Rogers Park, Wrigleyville, Uptown, Andersonville, Edgewater, Lakeview), Oak Park and Norridge, Ill.

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