Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court heard oral argument in Wilkins v. Williams. Wilkins is a sequel of sorts to Harris v. Thompson, in which the Court considered the statutory immunity of a publicly owned ambulance involved in an accident. Wilkins poses the flip-side question: what if the ambulance is owned by a private, for-profit company? Our detailed preview of the facts and lower court opinions in Wilkins is here. The video and audio of the argument is available here.
In Wilkins, a privately owned ambulance transporting a patient on a non-emergency run struck another vehicle, injuring the driver. According to the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Act, no “person, agency or governmental body certified, licensed or authorized pursuant to this Act” who “provides emergency or non-emergency medical services” can be “civilly liable as a result of their acts or omissions in providing such services unless such acts or omissions . . . constitute willful and wanton misconduct.” 210 ILCS 50/3.150(a). So does the EMS Act extend to non-emergency transport of patients? The Court held in Abruzzo v. City of Park Ridge only a few years ago that the statute impliedly covered transportation of patients. But even if it does apply to transportation of patients, does the immunity extend to injured third parties, as opposed to patients being treated by EMS workers?
Counsel for the defendants began by arguing that the initial question faced by the Court is whether EMS immunity applies; defendants’ position is that it does. Justice Freeman asked whether the immunity provision distinguishes between patients and injured third parties. Counsel agreed that it does not. Justice Freeman asked whether the language is ambiguous, and counsel responded that it was not. Justice Thomas asked what the Court should do with the willful and wanton exception to the statute – should the plaintiffs be allowed to replead their complaint? Counsel responded that the facts would not support a willful and wanton allegation. Justice Thomas pointed out that the case had been resolved by summary judgment at the trial court level, and asked whether plaintiffs would have reason to ask for leave to replead. Counsel responded that the court had addressed the nature of the allegations and concluded that summary judgment was justified. Justice Thomas repeated that the trial court dismissed the action on immunity, and wondered again whether the plaintiff could have sought leave to replead a willful and wanton theory. Counsel responded that plaintiff had not done so. Justice Burke asked whether the Court would have to read a limitation into the immunity statute to hold that it doesn’t apply; counsel answered that the Court would have to rewrite the statute to find no immunity. Counsel closed by arguing that restricting liability to willful and wanton conduct would not essentially abrogate the Motor Vehicle Code, as plaintiff claimed.
Counsel for the plaintiff began by emphasizing the requirement of the Motor Vehicle Code that all drivers drive with ordinary care. Justice Thomas asked counsel where in the EMS Act the Court should find a distinction between ambulances with and without flashing lights (i.e., on emergency or non-emergency runs). Counsel responded that the distinction was found in the cases rather than the statute. Justice Thomas commented that based on the statute, it’s somewhat of an artificial distinction. Counsel responded that the applicable rule is that an ambulance must operate according to the rules of the road when not on an emergency run. Justice Burke asked why the ambulance would be on the road without a patient, and counsel answered that there was a variety of reasons, including commuting or carrying an organ donation. Justice Garman asked what the statute means when it says "in the normal course of their duties." Counsel responded that the duty at issue is the one owned to the patient; the EMS Act applies only to professional liability claims by patients. Justice Garman asked whether, if a patient is injured during transport, the patient has a cause of action. Counsel responded that the patient had no claim against the ambulance driver, but might have a claim against the other driver. Justice Garman asked whether that meant that the immunity wasn’t in fact limited to professional negligence. Counsel answered that in certain scenarios, transporting a patient is life-saving, and "services" can include driving. Justice Thomas asked whether a willful and wanton exception was a consistent interpretation of the Act – it didn’t leave the roads in chaos, but merely raised the burden of proof. Counsel repeated that the legislature had limited professional liability claims against EMS workers to willful and wanton conduct, but extending that rule to motor vehicle accidents was inconsistent with a variety of statutes, including the Financial Responsibility law requiring privately owned ambulances to carry insurance. Justice Thomas asked where the case rested since plaintiff didn’t seek to replead. Counsel responded that there were sufficient facts to go back and replead.
In rebuttal, counsel for the defendant stated that to accept the plaintiff’s position, the Court must overrule Abruzzo. No case or statute limits the immunity to professional negligence, counsel argued, and many cases have applied immunity outside the realm of professional negligence.
The Court will likely decide Wilkins in the next three to six months.