Articles Posted in Government Liability

In a recent decision, a state appellate court dismissed a firefighter’s lawsuit after she was run over by a truck while sleeping at base camp. After a fire broke out in a national forest, firefighters were deployed to fight the fire. A base camp was set up for firefighters so that they could stay near the forest. The fire protection districts, who were managing the fire, were required to set up a quiet, shaded sleeping area for firefighters at the camp.

Fire TruckWhen the plaintiff returned to camp, the designated sleeping area was full. Some of the firefighters went to sleep by the horse barns, but she did not want to sleep there due to the conditions, and she asked her supervisor if she could sleep in the infield. Her supervisor agreed. Some others slept there as well. On the next night, after fighting the fire all day, she returned to base camp at around 9 p.m. She again asked to sleep in the infield, and her supervisor agreed. At around 10 p.m., another employee drove a water truck across the infield and ran over the woman. The truck crushed the woman’s chest, ribs, lungs, and left shoulder, and fractured her back. It also permanently damaged her heart, lungs, and eyes.

The woman sued the fire protection districts, among others, claiming she was injured because the district created a dangerous condition on public property. The defendants claimed they were immune from suit because the firefighter’s rule prevented the woman from recovering compensation. The state’s court of appeals agreed with the defendants and dismissed the lawsuit, finding the case was barred under the firefighter’s rule.

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In a recent case, a plaintiff brought a claim against a city after he was hit by another driver. The man was hit after a woman failed to stop at a stop sign and crashed into his car. The man filed a lawsuit against the woman for negligence, alleging she was negligent in failing to stop. He also alleged the city was negligent for failing to make sure the stop sign was visible.

Stop SignThe woman claimed she did not see the stop sign because it was blocked by a tree, and a police officer who was at the scene also found the stop sign was significantly obstructed. After the man brought the claim, the court granted summary judgment and dismissed the city from the case, finding the city had immunity. The man appealed the decision.

That state’s supreme court reversed the decision and found the city did not have immunity. The man argued the city was liable under a state statute as a local government entity that negligently failed to keep public roads in repair or negligently failed to remove obstructions from public roads. The statute defined a “public road” as a public road, highway, street, avenue, alley, or bridge, but it generally did not include a shoulder, right-of-way, or traffic control device, unless the traffic control device was mandated by the “Ohio manual of uniform traffic control devices.”

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Earlier this month, a California appellate court issued an opinion in a pedestrian accident case, reversing a lower court decision that had declined to apply governmental design immunity. In the case, Gonzales v. City of Atwater, the appellate court found that all three elements of governmental design immunity were met by the defendant, the city that had designed and constructed the intersection where the accident giving rise to the case had occurred.

CrosswalkGovernment Immunity in General

In all 50 states, government immunity exists in some circumstances to limit a government’s exposure to liability after accidents. The motivating thought behind government immunity is to prevent a government from getting bogged down in defending lawsuits related to the normal functions that a government must carry out on a routine basis. Government immunity does not apply in every situation in which a government employee or entity causes an injury. However, governmental immunity is a hurdle that most personal injury plaintiffs must face when naming a state, local, or federal government as a defendant. A recent case illustrates this concept.

Gonzales v. City of Atwater:  The Facts

Gonzales was killed while crossing the street in an intersection in Atwater, California. Gonzales’ loved ones filed a lawsuit against both the driver of the vehicle that struck him and the City of Atwater. After a jury trial, it was determined that the driver who struck Gonzales was not at fault for the accident, but the City of Atwater was liable. The jury returned a verdict of $3.2 million.

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In a recent case, a boy and his parents brought a lawsuit against school officials after he was hit by a car at his school’s driveway on his way to school. The school was located near a highway, and the school’s entrance was busy around the opening and dismissal times during school days. There was no traffic light or person directing traffic at the intersection of the driveway. The boy alleged the superintendent, principals, assistant principals, and others negligently supervised school staff and students during school hours. The defendants claimed they were shielded from liability through governmental immunity.

School BusThe state’s supreme court found certain defendants were shielded by immunity. However, the court found the assistant principals could be held liable because they may have breached their duty to assign school staff to supervise students during school hours. One of the assistant principals had been responsible for assigning school staff members to supervise student duties throughout the school. However, the school could not produce the names of people who were assigned to “bus duty” on the day of the accident or during the two weeks before the accident.

The court explained that municipal employees are immune from liability for “discretionary” acts but not “ministerial” acts (those performed in a prescribed manner without the exercise of judgment or discretion). Considering this, the court found it was not clear the assistant principals had satisfied their ministerial duties because the assistant principals’ duties included not only preparing the bus duty assignments but also distributing the assignments to staff. Here, it was not clear they created and distributed the bus duty assignments. As a result, there was a “genuine issue of material fact” as to whether they breached their duties.

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  1. In a recent case before a state appellate court, a 29-year-old man dove into a pond at a park and broke his neck. Sadly, the man was paralyzed from the neck down as a result. His wife and he filed a claim against the state, alleging negligence and premises liability. At trial, a witness testified that there were “no swimming” signs posted at the recently filled pond, and the state planned to staff the swim area. On the day that the man dove in, there were other people swimming in the pond. The man testified that he thought the water looked deep enough, and he did a shallow dive into the water, but he did not check the depth of the water.

LakeThe case went to trial, and the state was not found liable. On appeal, the state’s supreme court agreed with the decision, finding that the state owed no duty to the man. The court found that the state was not responsible for the man’s injuries. First, it found that diving was an open and obvious danger of which he should have been aware. In addition, the court found that the state was protected under the recreational use statute. The state’s recreational use statute limited the liability of landowners when people use the land for recreational purposes without charge. The park would only have been liable if it had willfully or maliciously failed to guard or warn against a dangerous condition or activity—which did not occur in this case. Thus, the man and his family were unable to recover compensation.

Premises Liability in Illinois

Premises liability is based on the idea that owners and occupiers of land have a duty to maintain their premises to some degree in order to help prevent injuries to those who come onto the land. Generally, this duty depends on the type of person who comes onto the land. For example, an owner may have a higher duty to a business guest than to a social guest. In Illinois, however, the Premises Liability Act sets forth many of the laws related to premises liability.

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Sometimes, even when an individual has a valid claim, a failure to comply with procedural requirements can destroy one’s case. In a recent case, one man’s claim came to a halt after he failed to provide written notice within the required period.

StepsThe plaintiff fell down a set of stairs at City Hall and had to go to the emergency room for injuries he suffered as a result. He alleged that he tripped on an uneven stair tread. Almost six months later, the man spoke to an officer in the finance department at City Hall about his fall and medical expenses. A few weeks later, he provided the city with written notice that he was filing a claim, and he filed a claim against the city a few months later.

The city argued that the plaintiff filed his claim too late, since he filed his written notice after 180 days. Under state law, a written notice of claim against a governmental entity had to be filed within 180 days of the incident. The plaintiff argued that he complied with the statute, since although his notice was filed after 180 days, he had spoken to a city official beforehand, and they were aware of the incident and were not prejudiced as a result.

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Civil trials are often thought of as determinations about whether a defendant is liable. However, the issue of liability is only one of the issues decided in a trial. Trials also determine the amount of compensation awarded to the injured party. In a recent case against city and county governments, the defendants admitted liability but proceeded to trial only on the issue of damages.

bus-1263266_960_720A woman sued the city and county after being injured in a car accident. The woman was riding on a county bus when the bus was hit by a city fire department van. She was thrown from the bus and landed on the street. She then sued the city and county. The city and county admitted that they were liable, but they continued to trial on the issue of damages. The defendants argued that a spinal fusion surgery the woman had after the accident was an unnecessary procedure. The case was decided in favor of the woman for $575,203, including her costs for the spinal fusion surgery, and an appeals court affirmed the decision.

Governmental Immunity

Tort immunity afforded to the federal, state, and local governments generally makes them immune to lawsuits. It comes from the idea that a government that makes the laws cannot break the laws. It was also thought that lawsuits against the government could be so numerous that the government would never be able to pay them all. However, governmental immunity has been modified in recent years to permit tort actions against certain entities for specific reasons.

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Federal, state, and local governments control much of our everyday life these days, and they have a vast number of employees. Bringing suit against the government can be very tricky. There are often issues of governmental immunity. Sometimes there are issues about when you will be able to receive the compensation you deserve.

Governmental Immunity

Governmental immunity grants many federal, state, and local governments immunity from tort claims in some cases. This means that generally lawsuits cannot be brought against federal, state, or local governments or their employees. However, there are many exceptions. For example, some claims in Illinois cannot be heard in circuit courts but can be brought in a special Court of Claims. Another example is that some statutes provide exceptions—such as U.S.C. Section 1983, which allows plaintiffs to bring claims who were deprived of their constitutional rights by an official’s abuse of his or her position. Also, while Illinois’s Tort Immunity Act generally protects local governments, a local government or employee may be liable for willful and wanton conduct or for quasi-intentional conduct. A government entity can also waive the immunity. For example, a state legislature may be able to waive immunity, making government entities liable. An entity can also waive immunity by contract.

Even if an exception applies or immunity is waived, an attorney’s assistance is essential to get the compensation you deserve. The government may offer too little in a settlement—or there could even be a delay in getting your compensation because the budget is in deadlock.

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The Illinois Supreme Court’s recent decision in Coleman v. East Joliet Fire Protection District brings a significant change to Illinois law. Its decision greatly increases the exposure of local public entities to lawsuits. In the decision, the court repealed the public-duty doctrine, which held that local government entities owed a duty to the public in general, but not to individual citizens.

need-an-ambulance-1512594The lawsuit was filed by the family of a woman from Will County who died after waiting for an ambulance for 41 minutes. The woman called 911 and told the operators that she could not breathe and needed an ambulance. Her call was then transferred to another county’s dispatch operator, without relaying any information about the call. The second operator asked the woman questions but received no response. He then hung up and called back but received a busy signal, so he requested an ambulance for an unknown medical emergency.

Responders were then sent to the woman’s house, but no one answered the door. The responders asked dispatch for more information but did not receive any. They told the neighbors that they could call the police and ask them to make a forced entry. The responders then left, at the direction of their supervisor.

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In many cases, it is difficult to prevail in a lawsuit against the government. This is because federal, state, and local governments are all entitled to a certain level of immunity. Generally speaking, this means that as long as a government employee is acting within the scope of his or her employment when an injury to another person occurs, the government is not liable, even if the employee acted negligently, or without reasonable care. In Illinois, this is called qualified immunity.

water-tower-1-1489002While qualified immunity shields governments from having to compensate many injured parties, the immunity enjoyed by governments does not protect against liability in every single case. In some cases, if a government employee’s actions are particularly egregious, the government may be liable for damages. In these situations, an injured party must prove that the government acted with utter indifference or a conscious disregard for the health and safety of others or their property. In Illinois, this may also be referred to as gross negligence, or willful and wanton conduct.

Illinois, like many other states, provides qualified immunity to its government employees so that they may carry out their jobs without fear of being sued. However, as we have seen in cases involving police misconduct, sometimes this immunity backfires, and state employees act as though they are above the law entirely.

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