One of the strongest legal defenses for emergency responders is the public duty doctrine. It’s a principle of personal injury law that holds government owes its duty of care to the public at-large, not individuals. So individuals could only prevail in these injury cases if they could show some special relationship existed, and not simply that the agency had breached a duty to the general public (i.e., “a duty to all is a duty to no one”).
Florida has not recognized the public duty doctrine since 2001, following the passage of F.S. 768.28, which spells out the waiver of sovereign immunity in tort actions. Now, Illinois joins the growing number of states to abolish the public duty doctrine, after a divided decision in Coleman v. E. Joliet Fire Prot. Dist.
The case involved a 911 call made for a medical emergency by a victim who, following a series of apparent mishaps, was not attended to for a full 41 minutes. By that time, she had died.
According to court records, the victim was a 58-year-old living an unincorporated part of the county. She called 911 around 6:10 p.m. She was immediately connected to an emergency dispatcher from the county. She informed the dispatcher she could not breathe and needed an ambulance. “Hurry,” she added. The operator put the caller on hold and transferred the call to another county’s central dispatch. Written procedures indicate that when such a call is transferred, the first dispatcher has to inform the second of the nature of the call. However, the first dispatcher did not do this. He simply hung up, and the two dispatchers never spoke.
When the second dispatcher started asking questions of the caller, he got no answer. He didn’t know whether the call was dropped or whether the caller simply hung up. The second dispatcher tried twice to contact the caller, but got a busy signal. The second dispatcher was supposed to at that point call the original dispatching agency if more information is needed, but that did not happen. Instead, the second dispatcher classified the call as an “unknown medical emergency” and put the call in line for an ambulance dispatch three minutes after the first call came in.
The fire crews got the call at 6:16 p.m., but by then, it was classified as an “unknown emergency.” They arrived at the residence at 6:19 p.m. They knocked on the door and identified themselves, but no one answered. They couldn’t go in without police.
Neighbors came over and told the crews an elderly couple lived there and the husband had heart issues. Because forced entry couldn’t be made without police, they advised neighbors to call police. Meanwhile, the fire crews were ordered back in service and left.
It wasn’t until this point that the two emergency dispatchers communicated directly, and it was indicated the elderly woman had called saying she couldn’t breathe. Then there was confusion over the address, but the fire crews did eventually return and received permission to make a forced entry. There, they found the woman unresponsive. She was taken to a hospital and declared dead.
When her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against a number of government agencies for the botched response, defendants moved for summary judgment arguing they owed no special duty to the 58-year-old victim. Based on the public duty doctrine, trial court agreed and the appellate court affirmed.
The Illinois Supreme Court reversed. In so doing, they abolished the public duty rule. They further remanded the case for a determination by trial court of whether defendants could be liable for wanton and willful misconduct, as alleged by plaintiffs.
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Coleman v. E. Joliet Fire Prot. Dist., Jan. 22, 2016, Illinois Supreme Court
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Ketler v. PFPA – Enforcing a Liability Waiver, Jan. 22, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Wrongful Death Lawyer Blog