In Illinois, state law makes emergency medical responders immune from lawsuit arising from “acts or omissions in providing such services unless such acts or omissions constitute willful and wanton misconduct.” As a southern Illinois personal injury attorney I believe this was intended to shield medical responders from lawsuits filed by the people they treat in emergency situations, with an exception for gross misconduct. But In Wilkins v. Williams, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the law extends further, to third parties who may be injured while the EMTs responded to someone else’s needs in a non-emergency situation. That was the situation when an ambulance from Superior Ambulance Service, a private company, hit a car driven by Karen Wilkins. The decision means Wilkins, who suffered a brain injury, may not continue with her lawsuit.
On the evening of Nov. 14, 2005, Rhonda Williams was driving a Superior ambulance without lights or sirens, transporting a patient from a hospital to an emergency room on a non-emergency basis. Williams was in the far right lane of traffic on a three-lane road in greater Chicago; a semi truck was in the leftmost lane. Wilkins, heading for a doctor’s appointment, made a left turn across these lanes of traffic and collided with the ambulance. A witness testified that the vehicles in the other two lanes yielded to Wilkins, but the right lane was moving and Williams testified that the semi blocked her view. Witnesses and police agreed that the ambulance was not speeding. Wilkins remembers nothing about the accident; she suffered a brain injury and was hospitalized for two months.
She later sued the ambulance company and Williams for negligence, but the case was dismissed by the trial court under the EMS Act. An Illinois appeals court reversed, finding that the EMS Act does not extend to third-party claims based on ordinary driving.
The Illinois Supreme Court ultimately reversed again, finding that third-party claims were part of the state legislature’s concerns when it adopted the Act. The Act says entities licensed as emergency medical service providers are immune from lawsuits arising out of most parts of their work, including Williams’s non-emergency transport of the nursing home patient. The appeals court found the law silent on whether this applies to third parties, but the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed. The section does not limit the immunity to certain plaintiffs, it said; it declares that emergency workers shall not be civilly liable, period. To hold otherwise would create inconsistencies where third parties would have greater rights of recovery than patients for the same acts, the court said, and also violate the legislative intent of the Act. The high court then refused to remand to examine whether Williams was guilty of willful and wanton conduct, since Wilkins never asserted it at any previous point.
As a St. Louis car accident lawyer, I wonder whether it serves the people of Illinois well to create immunity for some drivers—but not others—from negligence lawsuits. An ambulance driver in a non-emergency situation is not permitted to break any traffic laws, but under the EMS Act, she would be immune from lawsuits if she does break laws. As a dissent by Chief Justice Kilbride pointed out, this could also create a conflict with the state vehicle code, which sensibly requires that emergency vehicle operators drive with due regard for the safety of others on the highway. There is certainly an argument that emergency vehicles responding to emergencies should get special consideration. But as a Missouri auto accident attorney, I believe drivers owe one another a duty of reasonable care in the absence of extenuating circumstances.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients who have suffered serious injuries or lost a family member because of someone else’s careless decisions behind the wheel. If you’d like to tell us your story and learn more about your rights, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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