Tort Immunity: Can A Public Employee Legally Run You Over With A Car?

The 2012 Illinois Supreme Court case of Harris v. Thompson involved James Harris, who was driving a minivan southbound through an intersection when he collided with an eastbound ambulance.  The ambulance was responding to an emergency call and was being driven by a Massac County Hospital District employee (a public employee).  Mr. Harris was injured in the collision and sued the ambulance driver and Massac County Hospital District based on the ambulance driver’s negligence.  On September 30, 2009, a jury returned a verdict in favor of Mr. Harris in the amount of $665,000.  However, the defendants appealed, arguing that they were immune from liability under the Illinois Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (“Tort Immunity Act”), which provides that public employees acting within the scope of their employment are not liable for injuries caused by their own negligence.

However, Sections 11-205 and 11-907 of the Illinois Vehicle Code impose a duty on emergency vehicle operators to operate their vehicles with “due regard for the safety of all persons.”  625 ILCS 5/11-205(e), 11-907(b).   Moreover, in pertinent part, Section 11-205 authorizes emergency vehicle operators to “[p]roceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be required and necessary for safe operation,” and to “[e]xceed the maximum speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or property.”  625 ILCS 5/11-205(c).  Therefore, on appeal, Mr. Harris argued that even if the Tort Immunity Act immunizes public employees from liability for negligence in general, the Act is superseded in this case by the Vehicle Code.

On June 21, 2012, the Illinois Supreme Court sided with the defendants.  The Court explained that where two statutes are in conflict, one of which is generally applicable and the other of which relates to only one subject, the particular statute prevails.  However, the Court found that the Vehicle Code applies to both public and private employees who operate emergency vehicles and therefore the statutes each “address different actors under different circumstances” and “are not in conflict”.  Thus, the Court found that the Vehicle Code did not abrogate the Tort Immunity Act in this case, and it reversed the judgment.

If you disagree with the Court’s opinion, you are not alone.  In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Kilbride stated that the facts implicate the duty of emergency vehicle operators to refrain from negligence found in the Vehicle Code and the immunity from negligence granted to those same actors by the Tort Immunity Act.  Thus, contrary to the majority’s conclusion, this case presents a scenario where the actors and circumstances overlap.  Chief Justice Kilbride further stated that the highly specific provisions of the Vehicle Code applicable to emergency vehicle drivers demonstrate the legislature’s intent that the Vehicle Code should trump the general immunity in the Tort Immunity Act.

To read the Court’s opinion as well as Chief Justice Kilbride’s dissenting opinion, click here.

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