SPRINGFIELD — An Illinois Supreme Court ruling has united two groups that often are at odds when it comes to legislation pending at the Statehouse.
The Illinois Municipal League and the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois, the state’s largest firefighters union, are backing a bill they say would shield local governments and public safety employees from being sued over the way they prioritize services.
“In these unusual times at the state Capitol, I think this is a good example where divergent interests can come together in support of something that really is common sense,” said Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. James Clayborne, D-Belleville, would codify the “public duty rule” that the Supreme Court struck down in January. The longstanding rule held that units of government and their employees have a duty to protect the well-being of the community as a whole rather than that of individual people.
The Supreme Court’s decision came in a case involving the 2008 death of Coretta Coleman in unincorporated Will County.
Coleman, 58, called 911 because she was having difficulty breathing. There was a series of delays and miscommunication among emergency personnel, and by the time Coleman’s husband arrived home and let paramedics in, more than 40 minutes had passed. She was found unresponsive inside and was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Coleman’s family sued the East Joliet and Orland fire protection districts, Will County, and their employees who were involved in the response.
Citing the public duty rule, lower courts ruled in favor of the defendants. But the high court overruled them in a 4-3 decision, abolishing the rule it had established in previous decisions.
“Obviously, if the legislature determines that the public policy requires it, it may codify the public duty rule, but we defer to the legislature in determining public policy,” Justice Thomas Kilbride wrote in the majority opinion.
That’s precisely what the Municipal League and the firefighters union are urging the General Assembly to do.
“In the Coleman case, the court decided to abandon the public duty rule and to abandon the public safety employees who the rule supports and defends,” said Brad Cole, the Municipal League’s executive director, calling it a “dangerous decision.”
For example, Cole said, it could expose local governments and their employees to lawsuits resulting from how they decide to prioritize numerous calls for help at the same time.
Devaney said the ruling could lead to “a cottage industry of frivolous lawsuits aiming to capitalize on the suffering of others.”
While there hasn’t been a flurry of new lawsuits since the ruling, supporters noted the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association opposes the measure.
Perry Browder, president of that association, said the proposed legislation is overly broad and could block an important check on how public safety agencies operate.
“We certainly don’t want to encourage frivolous lawsuits,” Browder said. “But at the same time, we don’t want to encourage reckless conduct or intentional disregard (by public safety employees) because that harms the public, harms our citizens and puts people at risk.”