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First responders want law to protect them from 'frivolous' lawsuits - Chicago Tribune

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By Kate Thayer, Contact Reporter, Chicago Tribune

A group representing firefighters and municipalities hopes to revive a law that protects first responders from getting sued by people they try to help. The so-called "public duty rule" dates to the 1800s and provides firefighters and paramedics broad immunity from lawsuits stemming from their on-the-job actions. But earlier this year, a divided Illinois Supreme Court struck down the public duty rule when it took up a case involving the 2008 death of a Will County woman who had called 911 while home alone after going into cardiac arrest and later died.

According to a lawsuit her family filed against the East Joliet Fire Protection District, paramedics arrived at the home of the 58-year-old woman, but when she didn't come to the door they decided not to force their way in because police were not present. The responders eventually returned and entered the home after the woman's husband came home, but by then 41 minutes had gone by since the initial 911 call. The lawsuit alleged that the delay in providing emergency care to the woman contributed to her death.

The lawsuit was initially dismissed but was eventually appealed to the state's high court.

In sending the case back to the lower court, justices said in part that the public duty rule is confusing and misused. They also noted that another law, known as tort immunity, provides first responders similar protection against lawsuits. But tort immunity is more limited in that it doesn't apply to "willful and wanton" conduct, meaning intentional wrongdoing.

Two groups representing firefighter unions and mayors seeking to get a public duty law on the books in Illinois are worried that its absence could open the door to "frivolous" lawsuits that will cost municipalities — and therefore taxpayers — money to get such legal claims dismissed in court.

A bill proposed in the Illinois Senate, first introduced in February, would bring back the public duty rule, though it has yet to be heard in a committee.

The public duty rule "protects public safety employees who need to be doing a service, not worrying whether or not they'll be getting sued," said Brad Cole, Illinois Municipal League executive director. "This has been common law for 160 years. We're not reinventing anything new."

The philosophy behind the law is that "public entities owe a duty to the public at large, and not any one individual. This meant that first responders could prioritize their responses based on available resources without the fear of lawsuits when a service didn't meet expectations," according to a joint release on the bill from the Illinois Municipal League and the Associated Firefighters of Illinois.

But Chris Hurley, president-elect of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association — a group that opposes the bill — said the public duty law wrongly protected first responders from being sued for misconduct, and the court was right to strike it down.

Hurley agreed with Supreme Court justices who said the public duty rule was confusing. He contended that tort immunity already immunizes first responders from frivolous lawsuits.

"As a society, we don't want this," he said. "You want a situation where there's no consequence for willful and wanton misconduct? That can't be the law in this state."

The Supreme Court ruling, he said, "eliminates a lot of confusing case law and doesn't do anything to harm local governments or their employees."

Those advocating for the return of the law, Hurley said, "ought to just come out and say what they really want. They don't want (government) employees sued for willful and wanton conduct. And they ought to tell the people what that means. They don't want any consequences for their behavior, ever, no matter how egregious it is."

But Cole denied that's the intent of the bill and said current immunity law for first responders does not offer enough protection. That law, unlike the public duty rule, can be offered only as a defense in court. That translates to government entities wasting taxpayer money to defend themselves, he said.

Original article courtesy of Kate Thayer, Chicago Tribune, published May 1, 2016.

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