High court rules for defendants in negligence suit; Kilbride dissents

By Bethany Krajelis | Jun 21, 2013


The First District Appellate Court erred when it reversed a trial court order granting summary judgment to the defendants in a negligence suit over a collision between an ambulance and car, the state high court ruled Thursday.

In reversing the appeals panel and affirming the trial court, the Illinois Supreme Court held that “the appellate court read an exception into the statute that does not exist.”

“There is no rule of construction that authorizes a court to declare that the legislature did not mean what the plain language of the statute imports,” Justice Robert Thomas wrote for the majority of the court.

Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, however, dissented, saying that he would have affirmed the appellate court based on a “clear conflict” between the two statutes at issue in this case: Section 11-907 of the state Vehicle Code and Section 3.150(a) of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Systems Act.

The issue over statutory interpretation came to the high court in an appeal over a negligence claim that Karen Wilkins brought against Rhonda Williams, individually and as agent of Superior Air Ground Ambulance Service, Inc., and Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Service, Inc.

Wilkins sued Williams for a vehicle collision that occurred in November 2005. Williams was driving an ambulance in Oak Lawn to transport a patient on a non-emergency basis from a hospital to a nursing home.

Williams testified she was driving westbound, when Wilkins, who was traveling eastbound, made a left hand turn across three lanes of traffic and collided with the ambulance. She said she didn’t see Wilkins’ vehicle until the collision because a semi-truck obstructed her view.

Wilkins testified that she had no memory of the collision and only remembers trying to turn left and then waking up in the hospital, where she remained until January 2006. She suffered a brain injury as a result of the crash and continues to receive therapy and treatment, according to the court’s opinion.

In response to Wilkins’ negligence suit, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based on the EMS Act’s immunity provisions.

Finding that the EMS Act barred Wilkins’ claim, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants.

The appellate court then reversed the trial court, determining that the EMS Act doesn’t extend to third-party negligence claims dealing with the ordinary operation of a motor vehicle.

“Given its disposition of the case, the appellate court did not address plaintiff’s claim that a genuine issue of material fact existed concerning whether Williams engaged in willful and wanton misconduct, which would render the immunity provisions of the EMS Act inapplicable,” Thomas wrote for the court.

In reversing the appeals panel, the majority of the Supreme Court focused its analysis on interpreting provisions in the Vehicle Code and EMS Act.

Thomas wrote the portion of the EMS Act in effect at the time of the incident provided, in part, that any person, agency or governmental body who provides emergency or nonemergency services in the course of their duties shall not be civilly liable for their actions unless they constitute willful and wanton misconduct.

Thomas noted that the appellate court determined that the EMS Act was silent on negligence toward third parties based on the ordinary operation of a motor vehicle and as such, turned to provisions of the state Vehicle Code that addressed the duty of emergency vehicle operators toward other motorists.

Those provisions, the appellate court held, showed that the legislature intended that drivers of authorized vehicles must still maintain due regard for the safety of other drivers even in the course of an emergency.

The appeals panel held that in order to give full effect to the Vehicle Code, the EMS Act could not be read to give ambulance drivers immunity from third party negligence claims. Doing so, the panel determined, would render the Vehicle Code’s provisions about driving with due regard meaningless.

On behalf of the court’s majority, Thomas wrote that the appellate court was wrong when it determined that the EMS Act is silent on the issue of negligence toward third parties.

“Section 3.150(a) does not limit, in any way, the types of plaintiffs to which the immunity applies. Nor does the language define or limit act or omission,” Thomas wrote. “Rather, the statute broadly declares that a person shall not be civilly liable as a result of their acts or omissions in providing nonemergency medical services.”

Thomas wrote that when a statute is clear and unambiguous, courts can’t depart from the plain language of that statute by reading in exceptions, limitations or conditions that the legislature did not intend.

He explained that “Section 3.150(a) of the EMS Act does not distinguish between patients and third parties for purposes of immunity from negligence” and “does not limit statutory immunity only to patients.”

As such and after analyzing other arguments raised on appeal, the Supreme Court held that Williams can’t be held civilly liable unless her actions constituted willful and wanton misconduct based on the plain language of the EMS Act.

In his dissent, Kilbride wrote that “this case presents a clear conflict between the imposition of a duty on emergency vehicle operators to refrain from negligence in section 11-907 of the Vehicle Code, and the contradictory grant of immunity from negligent operation of the ambulance in section 3.150(a) of the EMS Act.”

Kilbride wrote that he believes “the Vehicle Code controls as the more specific statute governing the operation of emergency vehicles” and that the immunity provisions of the EMS Act should not bar the plaintiff’s claim.

The Illinois State Ambulance Association filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the defendants in this case and the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association filed a brief supporting the plaintiff.

The Supreme Court handed down four other opinions today. They can be found at state.il.us/court.

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