Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection Dist. 2016 IL 117952
“Hurry” was the last word uttered by Coretta Coleman, as she attempted to get help. She dialled 911 at 6:10 p.m. in early June of 2008. Coretta told the 911 operator that she was unable to breathe. She asked for an ambulance and provided her address, telling the operator to hurry. The 911 operator put her on hold and then transferred the call to another operator. The initial 911 operator did not convey the information provided by Coretta to the new operator, despite policy directing operators to do so. The new operator never heard Coretta’s voice and, twice, attempted to call the number back, only to receive a busy tone. The new operator dispatched an ambulance at 6:13 p.m. and labeled it an unknown medical emergency.
At 6:19 p.m. the East Joliet Fire Protection District ambulance arrived Coleman’s residence, but after attempting to enter the house they were ordered to leave by their supervisor. Afterwards, neighbors called 911 to ask for police to open the Coleman’s door for another ambulance. At 6:37 p.m. the initial 911 operator called the second operator and told him the nature of the earlier call. The second operator then asked for the information again, in order to send another ambulance to Coretta. The initial operator did not give the entire address and the ambulance was erroneously dispatched, causing the ambulance to arrive at the correct address 11 minutes later than normal. At 6:51 p.m., 41 minutes after Coretta asked the operator to “hurry,” ambulances arrived to find Mr. Coleman pulling into the driveway. He let the paramedics in, but his wife was unresponsive and was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
Mr. Coleman sued East Joliet Fire Protection District, its ambulance crew, Will County, the two 911 operators, and Orland Central Dispatch. Mr. Coleman alleged that all were negligent and/or willful and wanton in their acts and omissions that ultimately deprived his wife of a fighting chance to live. The circuit court of Will County granted the Defendants summary judgment, which essentially ended Mr. Coleman’s case. The appellate court affirmed the decision and Mr. Coleman appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
Typically, governmental entities and their emergency response personnel are immune from civil liabilities arising from negligence in providing emergency response services. Pursuant to a series of statutes and a concept known as the public duty rule, claims against many public entities (and their personnel) typically fail because the public entities and personnel do not owe specific individuals any legal duty. Moreover, even if a duty is owed, the statutes immunize the public entity for conduct that does not rise to that which is willful and wanton.
A segmented and heated Supreme Court controversially abolished the public duty rule. The Court departed from stare decisis—the idea that previous court rulings guide new court rulings—and argued that the public duty rule was causing inconsistencies within the court system, that the public duty rule was against public policy, and that the public duty rule was made obsolete by statutes enacted by the legislature. The majority decision, which received less support than the dissent, concluded that these cases are best determined by application of conventional tort principles in conjunction with the statutes that afford immunities, rather than a common law tool that precludes a finding of duty for public entities.
Mr. Coleman has since passed away but this Supreme Court ruling gives his estate the opportunity to make its case in court.