IL Supreme Court Strikes Down the Public Duty RuleBy Kevin Camden
In a recent Illinois Supreme Court case, Coleman V. East Joliet Fire Protection District, the Court struck down the long-standing public duty rule, 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. The decision by the Court can impact how protective service providers, including law enforcement, defend themselves against allegations of negligence and will incorporate additional fact issues into defending such cases.
The facts giving rise to this case are a parade of horribles. At 6:10 p.m., Coretta Coleman called Will County 911, complaining she could not breathe, and gave her address as 1600 Sugar Creek. The call was transferred to Orland Central dispatch, without Will County 911 relaying he nature of the call. Orland Central asked some questions, but did not receive any response, and unsure if anyone was on the line, hung up. It did try to call back twice, but received a busy signal each time. Nonetheless, the East Joliet Fire Protection District responded, but could not get into the residence. The responding firefighters knocked and yelled, but could not gain entry. They called Orland Central back in an attempt to have them call the residence. Orland Central told them it would contact Will County, but the Will County line was busy. Neighbors saw the fire department, but did not have the Colemans’ phone number. The firefighters would not make forced entry without the police present. When contacted by the responding firefighters, their supervisor told them to go “back into service” and they left the residence at 6:24 pm.
At 6:40 p.m., the paramedics were again dispatched for a call at 1600 Sugar Creek. However, the subdivision contains both a “Sugar Creek Drive” and “Sugar Creek Court.” The 6:40 p.m. dispatch was to 1600 Sugar Creek Court; when the paramedics arrived, they could not find such an address. The paramedics called Will County 911;-while waiting for further directions, the ambulance found the address. At 6:51 p.m., 41 minutes after the initial 911 call, Coretta Coleman, who had suffered a pulmonary embolism, was found unresponsive and later pronounced dead. Coleman’s husband sued, alleging the defendants negligent and/or willful actions delayed life-saving treatment.
Defendant East Joliet Fire Protection District moved for and was granted summary judgment, citing the “public duty rule.” Both the trial court and appellate courts affirmed summary judgment.
In its decision to overturn the lower courts, the Illinois Supreme Court reviewed the history of state governmental immunity, which the Illinois legislature conferred on the state with the 1848 Illinois constitution. Moving then to local government tort immunity, the Court traced the development of local governmental tort immunity, with its addition from English common law to the passage of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/1-101 et seq.) in 1965. Lastly, the Court noted that the General Assembly had also enacted other legislation that provides immunity for various emergency services such as the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Systems Act (210 ILCS 50/3.150 and the Emergency Telephone System Act (50 ILCS 750/15.1.).
Focusing then on the public duty rule, the Court cited several cases supporting the position that a common-law public duty rule excluded local governmental entities from providing adequate government services. Citing its own prior decision in Leone v. City of Chicago, 156 Ill. 2d 33 (1993), this Court stated: “The courts of this State have held as a matter of common law that municipalities are generally not liable for failure to supply police or fire protection, nor are they liable for injuries negligently caused by police officers or fire fighters while performing their official duties. An exception to these rules has been recognized where the municipality owes the injured party a special duty that is different from its duty to the general public.”
However, the Court notes while long-standing in common law, the public duty rule was applied in very few Illinois cases. Then, in a decision to reject its own precedent and that of other Illinois courts, the Court abolished the public duty rule as it held, “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.”
The court is resolute in its holding, “[W]e conclude that the underlying purposes of the public duty rule are better served by application of conventional tort principles and the immunity protection afforded by statutes than by a rule that precludes a finding of a duty on the basis of the defendant’s status as a public entity. Accordingly, we hereby abolish the public duty rule and its special duty exception. Therefore, in cases where the legislature has not provided immunity for certain governmental activities, traditional tort principles apply.”
By analogy, the holding in this case will apply to the broader class of protective service employees, including police. For example, in the case of an in-custody death, the municipality can no longer argue as a defense the public duty rule. If an arrestee has asthma and the officers refused to give the arrestee her asthma inhaler and she suffocated, the case will now turn on tort principals, namely: was there a duty [to the arrestee]; was there a breach of the duty; was there causation; and, are there damages? Arguably, the Local Government Tort Immunity Act may apply, but it may be that this case will generate more litigation against municipalities.
Kevin P. Camden is a licensed attorney in Illinois who has represented law enforcement officers and agencies in discipline cases and litigation since 1998.