The “public duty rule” has provided many government officials with protection from lawsuits when they fail to provide adequate government services. A recent Illinois Supreme Court decision has abolished this rule, effectively restoring the public's right to seek victim compensation when government employees and officials engage in reckless, willful and wanton behavior.
The Illinois Supreme Court Case
The recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling involved the death of a Will County woman. Suffering from difficulty breathing, the woman had called 911 and spoke to an emergency dispatcher, giving her name and address and requesting an ambulance. When emergency medical technicians arrived, they found the house locked with no response, and decided to leave.
Neighbors called 911 and told dispatchers that the emergency crews left the scene without forcing their way into the house, and that the woman was still inside. The victim's husband arrived home approximately 40 minutes after his wife made the initial 911 call, and when he entered the house he found his wife unresponsive. She was finally transported to a hospital, where she was pronounced dead of cardiac arrest.
The victim's family filed a lawsuit against the East Joliet Fire Protection District and other public entities involved in the call, including the communications systems, first responders and ambulance services, alleging both negligence and willful conduct that caused the victim's death.
The trial court hearing the lawsuit dismissed the case, holding that no “public duty” was owed to the victim by the government officials and employees. The “public duty” rule stood for the proposition that local governments generally did not owe ANY duty of care to individual members of the general public to provide adequate government services.
In January of this year the Illinois Supreme Court determined in a 4-3 decision that the “public duty” rule should be abolished because it contradicts existing tort immunity laws which protect government officials when they make decision in good faith, and the rule is obsolete.
Public Duty No Longer Necessary
During a recent interview with The News Gazette, Attorney Chris Hurley, president-elect of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, praised the Illinois Supreme Court's decision to abolish the public duty rule. Mr. Hurley pointed out that there are already provisions in place to protect government officials from human error. Protection for “willful and wanton behavior” should not be provided, however. In fact, such limitations suggest that jurors and judges are incapable of determining the difference between reasonable human error and grossly negligent acts.
No Party Should be Immune
Regardless of the status of the person or persons responsible for a victim's death or injuries, a jury should decide whether the victim of gross negligence or willful, wanton and reckless conduct by government officials should receive fair and just compensation for preventable injuries.
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