In the closing days of its September term, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide a question of potentially great import for Illinois first responders: do public entities and their employees owe a tort duty of care to callers to 911 emergency lines? In Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection District, the Third District held that the answer was “no.”

On a summer evening in 2008, the decedent called 911. She reported that she couldn’t breathe and asked for an ambulance. The call was transferred, as per routine practice, from the county 911 operator to the local fire district dispatch center. The county operator didn’t communicate the emergency message to the fire dispatch operator; in fact, she allegedly didn’t speak to the fire dispatch operator at all.

The fire dispatcher tried to ask the decedent some questions, but received no answer. Ultimately, he hung up and tried to call back twice, receiving a busy signal both times. The dispatcher asked his partner to call the county dispatcher for more information. The call was assigned to an ambulance three minutes after being placed in the dispatch queue for a “priority 1” call. However, the paramedics in the ambulance were told nothing about the nature of the request for assistance.

When the dispatchers arrived at the house, no one answered. The paramedics asked the fire dispatcher to call the decedent again, but received no response back. The paramedics determined that they couldn’t make a forced entry without a police officer present. They called their supervisor, who instructed them to leave the scene and return to service. During the same time the paramedics were attempting to respond to the emergency call, the county was experiencing severe thunderstorms and several tornados; the fire dispatcher dispatched 17 units to respond to the tornado over the course of nine minutes.

Neighbors of the decedent attempted to reach the residence, and when they were unable to, they called 911 again. Ultimately, another ambulance was dispatched. The second ambulance received no answer at the house either, but while they were preparing to force entry, the decedent’s husband arrived home and let them in. The decedent was found unresponsive, and she was later pronounced dead at the hospital.

The plaintiff filed claims for wrongful death and survival, alleging that the county had been negligent by failing to communicate all relevant information to the fire district, and that the fire district was liable because the paramedics in the first ambulance had opted not to force entry into the house, and had informed the dispatcher that there was “no patient” at the residence. The defendants all moved for summary judgment, arguing that they owed no duty to the decedent pursuant to the public duty rule. Summary judgment was granted. The Appellate Court affirmed.

The public duty rule holds that government entities and employees owe no particularized duty of care to anyone in connection with governmental services like police and fire protection. On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court misapplied the rule; the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, on the other hand, argued that the rule doesn’t exist anymore in Illinois.

After carefully reviewing all the relevant authorities cited by the parties, the Appellate Court concluded that no Illinois Supreme Court decision has expressly abrogated the public duty rule. The plaintiff relied upon the one recognized exception to the rule, the “special duty” exception. The special duty exception requires proof of four factors: (1) the public entity is uniquely aware of the particular danger or risk to the plaintiff; (2) there are allegations of specific acts or omissions by the public entity; (3) the acts or omissions are affirmative or willful; and (4) the plaintiff was injured while under the direct and immediate control of the public entity or its employees and agents.

The Court held that plaintiff could not establish the fourth element. In order to establish a special duty, the public employee must initiate the circumstances which create the dangerous situation – say, for example, a police officer directs a member of the public to do something that puts her in danger. But here, the 911 call was initiated by the decedent, who was already in serious danger by that time.

In the alternative, the plaintiff argued that duties of care were created by the ETS Act, the EMS Act, and the defendants’ written policies, but the Court held that even if that were true, the duties ran to the public as a whole, not to the decedent.

Finally, the Court refused to find that operating a 911 response service creates a duty of care to callers under the tort principle of a voluntary undertaking. First, such an application of the voluntary undertaking theory would violate the public duty rule. Second, the plaintiffs had a legal obligation to run a 911 response service, so any undertaking was not voluntary.

We expect Coleman to be decided in six to eight months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Dave Seven (no changes).