Immunity of Emergency Vehicles in Illinois

This week the Supreme Court of Illinois resolved an arguable conflict between two statutes. It decided what standard Illinois lawyers must use when there is a wreck between an emergency vehicle, like an ambulance, and a citizen’s vehicle. It resolves an arguable conflict between the Illinois Vehicle Code and the Local Governmental and Governmental Tort Immunities Act.

The facts of the case are as follows. James Harris brought a claim against Steven Thompson and the Massac County Hospital in Harris v. Thompson. Thompson was an ambulance driver for Massac Memorial Hospital. He and the plaintiff collided while he was driving the ambulance on an emergency call. Plaintiff was driving his car with his wife and daughter. All of the people in the plaintiff’s vehicle sustained injuries. The case went to trial. The plaintiff had plead counts for willful and wanton misconduct and negligence. The court held that there was not enough evidence of willful and wanton misconduct and directed the verdict on these counts. In other words, the plaintiff lost on the counts alleging willful and wanton misconduct because the judge ruled there was not enough evidence to prove willful and wanton misconduct. The jury decided the negligence counts. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs in the amount of $667,216.30. The defense appealed, claiming it is only liable for willful and wanton misconduct, because emergency vehicles are immune from liability for negligence.

The Illinois Vehicle Code regarding public officers and employees provides that a driver of an “authorized emergency vehicle”, when responding to an emergency call, may proceed through stop lights or stop signs “but only after slowing down as may be required and necessary for safe operation.” They may speed “so long as [the driver] does not endanger life or property.” The Illinois Vehicle Code also provides that “the foregoing provisions do not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty of driving with due regard for the safety of all persons.” Additionally, the statute says that the drivers are not relieved of the consequences of “reckless” disregard for the safety of others.

On the other hand, section 5-106 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act provides that local public entities nor public employees are not liable for the “negligent” operation of a vehicle “except for willful and wanton misconduct”.

The Supreme Court held that the willful and wanton standard applies. If vacated the verdict based on negligence because negligence is not enough to win against a public entity responding to an emergency call. A person must prove willful and wanton misconduct, not negligence.

The Supreme Court reached the correct result in my opinion. The “reckless” standard mentioned in the Illinois Vehicle Code means virtually the same thing as the “willful and wanton” standard in the Tort Immunity Act. Both code sections intended to imposed liability for willful and wanton misconduct.

The legislature in both statutes intended to give immunity to people who drive emergency vehicles in car wrecks. It used the word “reckless” in the Illinois Vehicle Code and “willful and wanton’ misconduct in the Tort Immunity Act. If these two words do not mean the same thing they are close. The Illinois Vehicle Code, by using the term “reckless” meant a much higher standard than “negligence”.

James W. Ackerman has handled thousands of cases involving motor vehicle violations. We know the law and understand what it means. If the Supreme Court had held that the Illinois Vehicle Code allowed allegations of mere negligence it would have gutted the Tort Immunity Act as it applies to emergency vehicles. Any time an emergency vehicle caused a collision through bad driving it would have been liable for the collision. Whether this is a good policy decision is not at issue. The legislature intended, in both statutes, to impose liability for willful and wanton misconduct as opposed to negligence.