Supreme Court reverses Fifth District in negligence case, overrules 1997 appellate court decision

Bethany Krajelis Jun. 22, 2012, 9:00am

Overruling a 1997 appellate court decision, the Illinois Supreme Court on Thursday held that the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act shields a downstate ambulance driver from liability in an automobile accident that took place en route to an emergency call.

In a 6-1 ruling with Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride dissenting, the state high court reversed the Fifth District Appellate Court, which determined that provisions of the Vehicle Code, not the Tort Immunity Act, governed James Harris' negligence claim against ambulance driver Steven W. Thompson.

The issue between the code and act stems from the 2004 collision between Thompson and Harris. The two vehicles crashed at an intersection in Metropolis as Harris drove a Dodge Caravan carrying his wife and daughter and Thompson responded to a call for an ambulance with an emergency medical technician, who was in the rear of the ambulance at the time of the crash.

The passengers and drivers in both vehicles sustained injuries. In 2005, Harris and his family sued Thompson and his employer, the Massac County Hospital District, alleging negligence and later, willful and wanton conduct. The defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that they were immune from liability under the Tort Immunity Act. The circuit court denied that motion in 2006.

Three years later, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Harris and the circuit court entered a $667,216.30 judgment on the verdict. Asserting immunity under the act, the defendants filed a post-trial motion, requesting a judgment notwithstanding the verdict or in the alternative, a new trial on the issue of damages based on evidence of an unpaid portion of Harris' hospital bill.

Relying on the Fifth District Appellate Court's 1997 ruling in Bradshaw v. City of Metropolis, the circuit court denied the motion. The Bradshaw court reversed a lower court's judgment in favor of a defendant based on the Tort Immunity Act, saying that the act and Vehicle Code conflict and because the code is more specific, it preempts the act's more general provisions.

The act provides immunity to local public entities and employees from liability that arises from the operation of government. The Vehicle Code provides certain privileges to drivers of emergency vehicles responding to emergency calls. The code notes, however, that these privileges, which include driving over the speed limit and proceeding through stop signals, do not relieve emergency vehicle drivers "from the duty of driving with due regard for the safety of all persons."

Writing for the majority of the state high court, Justice Charles E. Freeman cited the court's 1998 decision in Henrich v. Libertyville High School to bolster its contention that it does not need to determine which provisions are more specific. He said that the code and the act each stands "in its own sphere" and each "address different actors under different circumstances."

"Sections 11-205 and 11-907 of the Vehicle Code provide certain privileges both to public and private employees who operate emergency vehicles," Freeman wrote. "In contrast, the Tort Immunity Act does not apply to private employees, but provides immunity only to public employees absent willful and wanton conduct. Therefore, these sections of the Vehicle Code do not abrogate the Tort Immunity Act."

For those reasons, Freeman said the court overruled Bradshaw and determined that the Tort Immunity Act controls the negligence claim against the defendants in this case.

Kilbride, however, wrote in his dissent that he believes the lower courts' judgments relying on Bradshaw "were correct and should be affirmed."

Pointing out how the code imposes "a duty on emergency vehicle drivers to refrain from negligence" while the act "immunizes emergency vehicle operators from the negligent operations of their vehicles," Kilbride said that he, unlike the majority of the court, believes "this is an obvious and undeniable conflict" between the code and act.

"Thus, contrary to the majority's conclusion, this case presents a scenario where the spheres, actors and circumstances overlap," Kilbride wrote in his dissent. "Simply stated, the Vehicle Code's clear and unambiguous imposition of a duty to operate an emergency vehicle with 'due regard for the safety of all persons' cannot be reconciled with the Tort Immunity Act's blanket immunity afforded to emergency vehicle operators against claims of negligence."

The Supreme Court also declined Harris' request to apply its decision prospectively if it overruled Bradshaw and reversed the lower courts.

On behalf of the court, Freeman reasoned that the majority's decision does not establish a new rule of law, the first of three factors it must consider when determining whether to apply a decision prospectively.

"Our decision in the case at bar does not establish a new principle of law by overruling clear past precedent. Initially, Bradshaw was hardly clear past precedent. No other panel of our appellate court before or since Bradshaw has reached its conclusion," Freeman wrote for the court. "Indeed, the appellate court in the case at bar was not bound to follow Bradshaw, and could have disavowed Bradshaw and joined its colleagues from every other appellate district who have considered this issue."

Freeman added that "In any event, resolving a conflict among districts of our appellate court by choosing one appellate court decision over another does not constitute overruling a clear past precedent... Rather, our decision today represents a clarification of the law, and not a clean break from past precedent."

The case is Harris v. Thompson, 2012 IL 112525. The Fifth District Appellate Court's unpublished order in this case is No. 5-09-0625.

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