Earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court, by a narrow margin, finally put to rest the “public duty rule.” The rule was a nearly 150-year-old common law vehicle used by governmental entities and their employees to avoid responsibility for misconduct when providing services to the public. InColeman v. East Joliet Fire Protection District, 2016 IL 117955, the state high court finally conceded what many plaintiff’s attorneys have been arguing for years, that the field is just too muddled and the landscape riddled with anomalous rulings against injured plaintiffs. The crux of the problem is that there are specific Illinois statutes that were crafted to shield governmental entities from liability, like the Illinois Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Systems Act and the Emergency Telephone System Act. Some of those statutes, unlike the public duty rule, carve out exceptions for willful and wanton conduct. Thus the confusion.
With the elimination of the public duty rule comes the illumination of the circumstances under which the government and its employees may be liable to citizens for conduct that causes personal injury. Contrary to what the defense bar may argue, it does not open the floodgates for cases against the government. What it does do is level the playing field on proving the very narrow exception to governmental tort immunity—that the government or its employees committed willful and wanton conduct. This is a high bar for plaintiffs to scale to be sure. Yet it is also consistent with the underlying principle that the law cannot serve as a shield for egregious conduct as demonstrated by the prohibition against indemnifying another for their own willful misconduct. Indeed, this is a common sense safeguard against governmental entities and public employees exploiting their position and power to the detriment of the public.
In the immediate aftermath of the Coleman ruling we may see a spike in motion practice flushing out its impact. However, the long term effect should be clarity and a streamlining of the claims and arguments for early disposition. This should result in the meritorious cases proceeding to trial where a jury will decide the gravity and consequences of the government defendant’s actions and award just compensation to the plaintiff.
The Illinois Supreme Court exhibited strong leadership in finally abandoning a rule that had been the source of tortured legal analysis and ultimately rendered obsolete by the state legislature. In doing so it has given victims injured at the hands of our governmental institutions the ability to demonstrate when society simply will not tolerate certain conduct. If the legislature ends up codifying the public duty rule hopefully it will do so in conjunction with a review of the overlapping statutes and take the opportunity to lend clarity to the laws addressing governmental tort immunity in Illinois. At least this plaintiff’s lawyer can only hope.