Currently, Illinois municipalities, townships, counties, special districts and their employees are immune from the failure to provide general police and fire protection, even in cases involving negligence.  This is known as the Public Duty Rule.  The Public Duty Rule and the tort liability shield that it affords to municipalities and other government agencies has been in existence in Illinois since 1968.  The rationale behind the Public Duty Rule is that a municipality owes a duty to preserve the well-being of the community at-large, rather than to specific members of the community, and that police and other public employees cannot guarantee the safety of every specific community member.  This immunity is in jeopardy by a recent appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court in the case of Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection District, which seeks the abolishment of the Public Duty Rule.

In the Coleman case, a woman dialed 911 and informed the dispatcher that she could not breathe and needed emergency medical assistance.  Due to a series of alleged errors by dispatchers and emergency medical responders, the paramedics were not able to render assistance to her for over 40 minutes, by which time she had suffered a pulmonary embolism and died.  The deceased woman’s next of kin filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the East Joliet Fire Protection District and other involved public entities, alleging negligence in the performance of their duties.  The trial court dismissed the suit based on the public duty rule, and the Third District Appellate Court affirmed the lower court’s decision.  However, on September 24, 2014, the Illinois Supreme Court granted the plaintiff’s petition for leave to appeal.

The Illinois Supreme Court only accepts about 5 percent of the petitions for leave to appeal that it receives, and it reverses approximately 50 percent of those.  Therefore, the appeal signals a danger to the Public Duty Rule going forward, which could necessitate much more comprehensive and expensive liability policies for local governments to insure for negligence in the performance of duties related to police and fire protection.  The irony is that the Public Duty Rule was created in large part to minimize tax dollars going to pay insurance companies for additional coverage and to pay legal costs to defend lawsuits arising out of the intrinsic government function of providing emergency response services to residents.  The local government defendants are actively seeking amici curiae briefs from local governments, meaning they want local governments to support the value of the Public Duty Rule to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Jennifer J. Gibson

Author: Jennifer J. Gibson