Supreme Court Summaries

Opinions filed January 22, 2016

  

 

        

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

 

Appellate citation: 2014 IL App (3d) 120583-U

 

            JUSTICE KILBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

            Justice Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.

            Justice Freeman specially concurred, with opinion, joined by Justice Theis.

            Justice Thomas dissented, with opinion, joined by Chief Justice Garman and Justice Karmeier.

 

            On June 7, 2008, the decedent here, a 58-year-old woman who lived in the unincorporated Sugar Creek area of Will County, placed a 911 call for medical help, giving her address and saying that she could not breathe and needed an ambulance. This was the last telephone communication with her, so that no further details as to her medical condition were ever obtained. Return calls to her telephone number yielded only a busy signal. There was initial confusion as to the decedent’s correct address, and the crews which did arrive found the house locked, with no response from inside. Neighbors were calling 911, saying that first responders had left the scene without doing anything. No one forced their way in. Finally, 41 minutes after the initial 911 call, the decedent’s husband arrived and opened the home, where his wife was discovered, unresponsive. She was transported to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest.

            A wrongful death and survival action was filed in the circuit court of Will County, alleging both negligence and willful and wanton conduct. Numerous defendants were joined, including first responders, communications systems, ambulance services, and the East Joliet Fire Protection District, the first named defendant here. It was alleged that the defendants had deprived the decedent of a chance to survive and had caused her pain and suffering. A motion to dismiss was granted in part, the plaintiff having conceded that the negligence counts could be dismissed on the basis of immunity. Matters proceeded through discovery, after which the circuit court granted summary judgment, under the “public duty” rule, in favor of all defendants on the willful and wanton counts, holding that no “special duty” was owed. It did not reach the issue of immunity. The appellate court affirmed.

            The common law public duty rule provides that local governmental entities owe no duty of care to individual members of the general public to provide adequate government services, such as police and fire protection. Sovereign immunity has been abolished in Illinois, but statutory tort immunities have been enacted. Some statutes allow recovery against a public entity in certain cases involving willful and wanton misconduct. Up until now, the supreme court has held that the public duty rule survived the abolition of sovereign immunity and the passage of the Tort Immunity Act. However, pointing out that duty and immunity are separate issues, the supreme court said here that the time has come to depart from stare decisis and address the continued viability of the public duty rule in Illinois. The court abolished the rule, as well as its special duty exception, finding that application of the rule is incompatible with the legislature’s grant of limited immunity in cases of willful and wanton misconduct and that the rule has caused jurisprudence to become muddled and inconsistent. The underlying purposes of the public duty rule are better served by application of conventional tort principles and the immunity afforded by statutes than by a rule that precludes a finding of duty on the basis of the defendant’s status as a public entity.

            Both the circuit and appellate courts were reversed, and the cause was remanded to the circuit court for its determination as to whether defendants may be held liable for willful and wanton conduct as alleged in the complaint.

            If the legislature determines that public policy so requires, it may codify the public duty rule, but the supreme court deferred to the legislature in determining public policy.