Can a public entity or employee be sued over the negligent operation of an emergency vehicle responding to a call? This morning, the Illinois Supreme Court held in Harris v. Thompson [pdf], written for a 6-Justice majority by Justice Charles E. Freeman, that the answer is “No.”

Harris arose from a 2004 accident. Defendant, a publicly owned hospital, received a diabetic emergency call from a nearby nursing home, requesting an ambulance to transport a resident to another hospital for further care. While on the way to the nursing home, the hospital’s ambulance collided in an intersection with another vehicle, occupied by the plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs sued the hospital district and the publicly employed ambulance driver, alleging negligence. When defendants asserted governmental immunity as a defense, plaintiffs added a claim for willful and wanton conduct. The case proceeded to trial. At the close of plaintiff’s evidence, the court directed a verdict for defendants on the willful and wanton claim, but allowed the jury to return a large verdict for negligence.

Harris involves a perceived conflict between two statutes. First, there’s the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10/2-109:

Except for willful and wanton conduct, neither a local public entity, nor a public employee acting within the scope of his employment, is liable for an injury caused by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle or firefighting or rescue equipment, when responding to an emergency call, including transportation of a person to a medical facility.

On the other hand, there’s the Vehicle Code, which provides that although “the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle” has certain privileges, such as the right to exceed the speed limit, “the foregoing provisions do not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty of driving with due regard for the safety of all persons.” 625 ILCS 5/11-205Section 11-907 of the Vehicle Code contains similar language.

The Appellate Court had held that the Tort Immunity Act and the Vehicle Code were in conflict, and the Vehicle Code governed pursuant to the traditional canon that a specific statute trumps a more general enactment, following Bradshaw v. City of Metropolis, 293 Ill.App.3d 389 (1997).  The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed.

In fact, there is no conflict, the Court held. The Vehicle Code extends certain privileges to both public and private employees driving emergency vehicles. The Tort Immunity Act was both more narrowly focused – applying to only public employees and their employers – and addressed a different question: regardless of whether a duty of care was involved, was the suit barred? Therefore, the Court held that absent proof of willful and wanton conduct, public employees and their employers are immune from liability arising out of operating emergency vehicles. In two brief postscripts to the decision, the Court declined plaintiff’s invitation to apply its rule only prospectively, holding that it had announced no new rule of law, and affirmed the Circuit Court’s direction of a verdict against plaintiff on willful and wanton conduct.

Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride dissented, arguing that there was an “obvious and undeniable conflict” between the Vehicle Code and the Tort Immunity Act. The Chief Justice concluded that in order to give effect to the legislature’s “clear . . . intent” to impose a duty of due care on emergency vehicle operators to refrain from negligence, the Vehicle Code should have prevailed, and the plaintiff’s judgment should have been affirmed.