Late last week, the Illinois Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Wilkins v. Williams, holding that the state Emergency Medical Services Act makes the private owner and driver of an ambulance immune from tort liability for any motor vehicle accident occurring while they are rendering services. Our detailed summary of Wilkins, including the lower court rulings, is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

Wilkins was a sequel to Harris v. Thompson, which the Court handed down last June. In Harris, the Court held that government entities and public employees operating emergency vehicles were immune from liability for motor vehicle accidents pursuant to the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act. The Act provides that public entities and their employees cannot be “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.” In so holding, the Court held that the Tort Immunity Act trumped language in the Vehicle Code imposing “the duty of driving with due regard for the safety of all persons” on drivers of emergency vehicles.

Wilkins involves nearly identical facts: an ambulance on a non-emergency run collides with another vehicle, injuring the driver. But in Wilkins, the ambulance was privately owned, so instead of the Tort Immunity Act, we’re looking at a nearly identical provision in the Emergency Medical Services Act: no person 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). The trial court in Wilkins tossed the case on summary judgment based on the EMS Act, but the Appellate Court reversed, finding that the EMS Act applied only to negligence claims by patients, rather than by third-parties.

The same six Justices who comprised the Harris majority reversed the Appellate Court, finding that the EMS Act immunized the defendants. In an opinion by Justice Robert R. Thomas, the Court rejected the Appellate Court’s view that the EMS Act immunity did not extend to alleged negligence involving third parties. Although the statute doesn’t specifically mention injuries to third parties, it speaks in broad terms – “shall not be civilly liable” – without limitation. Since the legislature didn’t carve out third party drivers of other vehicles from the statute, the courts lacked any power to do so, the Court found. Indeed, any such construction would result in an absurdity, the Court noted: an unrelated third party could recover for simple negligence, while the patient actually being treated (or transported) in the ambulance would be limited to recovery for willful and wanton misconduct.

Once that was settled, the case became a straightforward application of Harris. Just as the Court had found no conflict in Harris between the Tort Immunity Act and the Vehicle Code, the Wilkins Court found none between the EMS Act and the Vehicle Code. The Vehicle Code imposed a duty of care. Without such a duty, any potential negligence claim would have been stopped in its tracks. Only after finding a duty does the analysis proceed to the separate question of whether any immunities apply, and the EMS Act kicks in. Since the EMS Act applied to the defendants, the negligence suit was barred.

Just as he had earlier in Harris, Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride dissented. The Chief Justice argued that there was a “clear conflict” between the EMS Act and the Vehicle Code, and as the more specific statute, the Vehicle Code should prevail.