Illinois Supreme Court Rules Ambulance Driver is Protected Under Immunity Law

All of us have seen ambulances speed through intersections, their sirens blaring and lights flashing in an effort to warn other motorists. Now the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that an ambulance driver cannot be held liable if a collision occurs with another vehicle. Citing an immunity law, the high court ruled that government employees are protected.

The high court ruling stems from a 2004 crash in downstate Massac County, when ambulance driver S.T., responding to an emergency call, drove through a stop sign at an intersection. A minivan driven by plaintiff J.H. collided with the ambulance, causing injuries to drivers and passengers in both vehicles.

J.H. sued the ambulance driver and the Massac County Hospital District for negligence. Citing the hospital’s standing as a municipal corporation, however, the defendants in the suit claimed the immunity act freed them from liability.

A jury sided with the plaintiffs in 2009, and a divided appellate ruling affirmed the decision, finding the immunity act did not apply in this case.

Lower courts found the Illinois Motor Vehicle Code — which requires ambulance operators to use “due care” when driving — superseded the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, which protects public entities from spending funds on damage claims.

But in a 6-1 decision written by Justice Charles E. Freeman, the high court said the immunity law shields the driver from liability, since the case did not involve willful and wanton misconduct. “Courts have held that although emergency vehicle drivers entered intersections at excessive speeds, the totality of the circumstances nonetheless failed to show that the drivers consciously disregarded or were utterly indifferent to the safety of others,” the opinion says.

The decision overturns trial and 5th District Appellate Court rulings, erasing a $667,000 award for the plaintiffs.

The high court also said the two laws — the vehicle code and the immunity act — exist in separate spheres, adding that the immunity act covers public employees while the vehicle code regulates both public and private workers. As a result, the laws do not conflict, the court said, and the immunity act protects employees like S.T. from liability.

Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride dissented, writing that he sees “obvious and undeniable conflict” between the two laws. “Simply stated, the Vehicle Code’s clear and unambiguous imposition of a duty to operate an emergency vehicle with ‘due regard for the safety of all persons’ cannot be reconciled with the Tort Immunity Act’s blanket immunity afforded to emergency vehicle operators against claims of negligence,” the dissent says.

The case is James Harris, et al., v. Steven W. Thompson, et al. No. 112525.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling personal injury matters, car crashes, truck accidents and protecting the safety of individuals and families for more than 36 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Zion, North Chicago, Evanston, Calumet City, Chicago Heights, Park Forest, Glendale Heights and Elmwood Park, Illinois.

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