When Public Duty Law Protects Emergency Responders From Lawsuits

Public Duty Laws and Emergency RespondersShould emergency responders be protected from litigation?

That question returned to the forefront of discussion this year when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the so-called “public duty rule” should no longer be in effect in that state. The rule provides general immunity from lawsuits brought by those who accuse paramedics, firefighters and police officers of failing to provide the level of response they should have provided in an emergency situation.

This new ruling means a governmental entity and its employees owe a definite duty of care to individual members of the general public and can be sued for a failure to deliver that specific level of care. Under the public duty rule public entities owe a duty to the public at large, not to any one person. This means first responders can prioritize their responses based on available resources without fear of lawsuits unless it can be shown they are acting outside of their duty or that they acted with malicious purpose, in bad faith, or in a wanton and reckless manner.

The public duty doctrine is generally used when an individual alleges that law enforcement personnel or other government employees are liable for injuries due to a breach of legal duty. But unless the state actors either created or enhanced a risk, or had a special relationship with the injured individual, these lawsuits are generally unsuccessful.

The Illinois Supreme Court concluded the underlying purposes of the public duty rule are better served by application of conventional tort principles and the immunity afforded by statutes already in existence. The prevailing justices said (1) the application of the rule has been inconsistent; (2) the application of the rule is incompatible with the legislature’s grant of limited immunity in cases of willful and wanton conduct; and (3) the legislature’s enactment of statutory immunities has rendered the rule obsolete.

In response to the ruling, two Illinois legislators have introduced Senate Bill 3070 which would reinstate and codify the public duty rule in that state and provide that a local government entity and its employers owe no duty of care to individual members of the general public when providing government services.

The Illinois Municipal League, a statewide organization representing almost 1300 communities, is also asking the state legislature to restore the broad protections provided by the public duty law. Additionally, the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois are lobbying for return of the public duty rule and are concerned about negative consequences and costs to taxpayers that could result from frivolous legal action.

The Coretta Coleman Case

This case brought about the ruling which abolished the Illinois public duty law. It concerned a June 2008 incident in Joliet, Illinois where a woman named Coretta Coleman called 911 and reported she was experiencing breathing problems. Per protocol, Coleman’s call was transferred to an operator at central dispatch whose job it was to dispatch an ambulance to the Coleman home.
When the dispatch operator got on the line, Coleman did not respond to the dispatcher’s questions. He then placed her call into “a line for ambulance dispatch” for an “unknown medical emergency.”

Paramedics went to the Coleman residence, but received no response when they knocked repeatedly on Coleman’s door and shouted “Fire Department!” They looked in the windows of the home but reported they did not see anything. They could not force entry into the residence unless police were present so they left the scene. Neighbors called 911 to report the ambulance’s departure. A second ambulance was dispatched to the scene and emergency responders were debating whether to force entry to the home when Ms. Coleman’s husband arrived and let paramedics inside.

Coretta Coleman was found unresponsive and died later at the hospital. It was determined that it had taken 41 minutes from her original telephone call for emergency responders to reach her. The Coleman family sued and challenged the public duty rule claiming it allows governments to be treated differently than its citizens in injury litigation. The trial court originally dismissed the case claiming the public duty rule protected EMS agencies. The appellate court confirmed the trial court’s decision and the matter then went to the Illinois Supreme Court. Defendants in the case were the East Joliet Fire Department, Will County and the Orland Fire Protection District.

Dissenting justices noted that the state Supreme Court had twice found that the rule did not conflict with the Illinois constitution or the state’s tort immunity laws. They said the ruling abandoned long-established legal precedent upholding the public duty rule without any compelling legal rationale for the action. They pointed out that it is the policy of the courts to stand by precedents and not disturb settled points of law.

The dissenting justices said emergency responders encounter situations daily in which they must respond “in the midst of unfolding emergency situations when every decision they make is fraught with uncertainty and their own safety may be at risk.” They must be free to respond, free from the risk of lawsuits and those questioning their actions in hindsight, the justices noted.

History of Public Duty Law

Since the late 1800’s sovereign immunity has almost universally protected state governments and their employees from being sued without their consent, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures which has studied the issue. The Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), passed in 1946, waived immunity to suit and liability for some actions, but by the mid-1990’s there was a growing trend toward government accountability and the concept of sovereign immunity was slowly eroding.

State legislatures began to enact statutes to define limits of immunity for state entities and employees and state tort claims acts–modeled after the FTCA—were enacted. The acts provided a general waiver of immunity with certain exceptions or provided immunity with limited waivers that only applied for certain types of claims. There were also state claims acts which established another kind of statutorily limited immunity. Procedures for claims against the state were defined and a court of claims was established to deter such claims and limit damages or provide for certain exceptions to liability. Ohio has such a court as does New York, Michigan, Illinois and West Virginia.

In 1997, the Federal Volunteer Protection Act extended immunity to volunteers affiliated with non-profit organizations as long as the volunteer’s compensation was less than $500 per year. In 2002, the FTCA extended immunity to federal volunteers in federally-declared emergencies. The immunity provided public liability for malpractice claims, but there was no true immunity for most health care providers who could face legal liability on their own or vicariously in connection with providers of emergency care. There remains no uniform law that acts as a shield to liability during declared public health emergencies.

Currently more than 30 states provide some protection for health care providers and many limit or “cap” the amount of damages recoverable from judgments against the state. Others (often in combination with a cap) prohibit the award of punitive or exemplary damages in cases against public health providers.
Very few states have laws that mandate a public duty to act. Many incorporate the duty as part of their Good Samaritan statute, but, in general, a person does not have a duty to rescue a person unknown to them and there is no penalty for not acting. The Good Samaritan concept is narrow in scope and primarily provides protection for emergency aid only at the scene of an emergency.

Public Duty Law in Ohio

In January 2010 the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled 6-1 that the ”public duty rule” does not immunize employees of a political subdivision from personal liability for injuries caused in the performance of their official duties in cases where the injured party alleges the employee engaged in wanton or reckless conduct.

In that case (Graves v. The City of Circleville), two Circleville, Ohio police officers and a dispatcher were named in a wrongful death suit. The plaintiffs, representing the estate of Jillian Graves, alleged that the officers had improperly allowed Cornelius Copley to retrieve his vehicle from an impound lot on the day after his arrest for driving under the influence. The next day Copley, who was intoxicated and driving again, collided with a vehicle driven by Graves and both were killed.

The officers sought dismissal of the claims against them under Ohio Revised Code Chapter 2744 which grants broad statutory immunity from civil liability to political subdivisions and their employees, subject to certain exceptions. One of those exceptions is that the latter employees are not considered immune when their acts or omissions are viewed in a wanton or reckless manner. The defendants relied on a 1988 Ohio Supreme Court ruling in which the court adopted the public duty rule. The trial court refused to dismiss the Graves case (by declining the officers bid for summary judgment). The 4th District Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court.

In the 2010 ruling, Justice Maureen O’Connor noted that the 1988 decision followed a series of judicial decisions that repealed Ohio’s common law doctrine of sovereign immunity. The legislature established a new statutory scheme (R.C. Chapter 2744) in 1985. O’Connor said the public duty rule espoused in the 1988 decision was adopted at a time when there was no immunity for a political subdivision or its employees. There is no longer a compelling rationale for the public duty rule, she wrote, and it does not apply in the Graves case.

States use a wide variety of terms to describe the standard of care that their particular statutes protect (or fail to protect). Ohio’s statute is viewed as providing the broadest immunity for all types of EMS personnel, according to emsworld.com. Any type of immunity that a statute provides gives some measure of defense, but there is still a push for a uniform standard in construction and coverage of emergency responder laws throughout the nation.

To learn more about the public duty law in Ohio, please contact us for a free consultation by calling 1-888-534-4850, chatting with one of our 24 hour live chat representatives or sending us a website message.