Don’t tie hands of first responders with lawsuits

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A woman was shot dead April 27, 2022, in Belmont Cragin.

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We want firefighters, police and other first responders making the best possible decisions in an emergency, not focusing on the legal ramifications of making the wrong one.

A paramedic, for example, must feel free to use his or her best professional judgment when deciding whether to administer CPR.

Similarly, municipalities should put every public safety dollar they have toward protecting the community, not defending themselves against lawsuits filed whenever an emergency situation has an unfortunate outcome.

For 140 years, that was settled case law in Illinois courtrooms, but earlier this year, the Illinois Supreme Court voted 4-3 to toss out the so-called “public duty rule,” which protected first responders.

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That will open the door to lawsuits, some of them no doubt of the nuisance variety, filed with an eye to the deep pockets of local governmental units. It’s easy to envision public safety departments flooded with legal filings after major disasters, such as tornadoes, when first responders can’t possibly respond promptly to every call for help.

To guard against such scenarios, the Legislature should advance a Senate bill designed to reinstate the public duty rule. The bill has been mired in committee, but last week, the Illinois Municipal League and the Associated Firefighters of Illinois launched an initiative to get it through the General Assembly before the end of the session.

First responders still have some protections. The Supreme Court left in place “tort immunity” for first responders, but that doesn’t offer protections as strong as the public duty rule. Even with tort immunity, local governments and even individual first responders could find themselves going through discovery, appearing at numerous court dates and running up legal fees.

Reinstating the public duty rule wouldn’t take away citizens’ rights to redress in cases of negligence. Neither tort immunity nor the public duty rule protect first responders in cases of “willful and wanton misconduct.”

Also, in recent cases of police conduct in Chicago, citizens were able to bring lawsuits under federal law even when the Illinois public duty rule was still in effect.

The Senate bill would not expand protection for first responders, but would simply restore the law to where it’s been for decades. That’s worked well both for citizens and first responders.

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