SPRINGFIELD—With just days left in the Illinois General Assembly's spring legislative session, there has been almost no movement on a bill that would reinstate the so-called public duty rule, a legal principle protecting police, firefighters, paramedics and other emergency responders from lawsuits brought by people who may believe those responders didn't provide the level of care the accusers thought was appropriate.
The public duty rule which had been previously ensconced in Illinois case law, was upended in a 4-3 decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in January. The majority of justices indicated they believed the state’s existing tort provisions offer protection for emergency responders and the municipalities and other local public bodies that employ them.
However, Illinois' municipalities disagree with that belief, said Brad Cole, executive director of the Illinois Municipal League. Cole said that the tort protections aren’t strong enough, particularly as they would still require municipalities to spend public money on previously unnecessary legal defense.
“The Tort Immunity Act does provide protection," Cole said. "However, the municipality has to go make that affirmative defense, so they have to go through all of the initial stages of a lawsuit that could be pending against them.
"The public duty rule disallows the suit from even being filed.”
In its January ruling, the state Supreme Court said that the public duty rule, because it was a common-law rule and not specifically written into the state code, conflicted with the state’s constitution, which rejects the concept of sovereign immunity. The court left lawmakers free to pass a law that would immunize municipalities and emergency medical services agencies against lawsuits, however.
Senate Bill 3070, which would formally write the public duty rule into law, was filed in February by State Senate Majority Leader James F. Clayborne Jr. (D-East St. Louis). The bill would ground the public duty rule in the principle that a government entity and its employees owe their duty to the public in general, rather than to specific individuals. The legislation has not yet received a hearing in the state Senate.
“The bill is still currently in the assignments committee, meaning it hasn’t been assigned anywhere in the Senate,” Cole said. “So it has not received any traction yet.”
Cole warned that without the public duty rule being reinstated, first responders could be forced to adapt out of concern for the risk of lawsuits.
“I think that if the door is open, you'll see first responders second guessing everything they do, because they're afraid they'll get sued,” he said.
Because the rule isn’t currently in place, he said, there is a distinct possibility that municipalities could face lawsuits. Cole said he didn’t have a prediction of what the cost could be, but that the danger is very much present.
“We don't want anyone to do anything that would cause a case to be generated in the first place,” Cole said. “But this basically says that the door's wide open to sue any first responder who didn't do something the way you liked it to be done.
"And that could be quite voluminous.”