The Supreme Court eliminated the public duty rule in the case of Coleman vs East Joliet Fire Protection District. The common-law public duty rule provided that governmental entities, such as fire and police entities, were immune from liability for things like responding to calls. In Coleman the court got rid of the immunity and substituted willful and wanton misconduct as the test for governmental liability.
In Coleman plaintiff resided with her husband in an unincorporated area of Will County. She called 911 indicating that her husband could not breathe and needed an ambulance. She asked the person on the 911 line to hurry because she was worried about her husband’s health. The 911 responders went to the wrong address. 41 minutes later the ambulance arrived. Plaintiff’s decedent died of pulmonary edema at 58 years old.
The trial court granted summary judgment for the public entity, basically dismissing the plaintiff’s case. The appellate court affirmed.
The Supreme Court said that the primary is whether the public duty rule remains viable. The court discussed state governmental immunity at length. It discussed the fact that the “public duty rule” means that governmental entities owe no duty to members of the general public to provide adequate governmental services, such as fire and police protection.
The court then discussed the continued viability of the public duty rule. The court discussed the fact that several states continue to use the public duty rule. The court concluded that the application of the public duty rule and its exception, called the special duty exception, has become “muddled and inconsistent.” Therefore, it got rid of the public duty rule and adopted the willful and wanton misconduct test. The court said “we conclude the underlying purposes of the public duty rule are better served by application of conventional tort principles.” Justice Freeman specially concurred. He was joined by Justice Theis.
Justice Thomas, Garman, and Karmeier dissented. They believe that the changing the law made a mockery of stare decisis. The dissenters did not believe the law was so complicated that people cannot understand it.
I thought the law was complicated. However, I also think that the decision does violate the concept of stare decisis. This is pretty clearly a change in the law without legislation, which is not really what courts are supposed to do. On the other hand, the law is clear this way and probably fair for people who are injured or killed by public entities. It does not seem reasonable that there is immunity for public duties.
The willful and wanton standard is a reasonable test for public entities. Willful and wanton misconduct is normally the standard in cases where negligence does not apply, like governmental action.
We at Ackerman Law Office pursue cases of significant injury or death, even if they involve governmental entities. If you are loved one have been harmed in injury claim, please feel free to contact us. We take injury and death claims on a contingent fee. We try to make sure we’re available to help our clients in difficult times.