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Wilkins v. Williams

Supreme Court of Illinois

June 20, 2013

KAREN WILKINS, Appellee,
v.
RHONDA WILLIAMS, Indiv. and as Agent of Superior Air Ground Ambulance Service, Inc., d/b/a Superior Ambulance Service, Inc., et al., Appellants.

JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Freeman, Garman, Karmeier, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

THOMAS JUSTICE.

¶ 1 Plaintiff, Karen Wilkins, filed a negligence claim against defendants, Rhonda Williams, individually and as agent of Superior Air Ground Ambulance Service, Inc., and Superior Air-Ground Ambulance Service, Inc. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of defendants. On appeal, the appellate court reversed and remanded the cause for further proceedings. 2012 IL App (1st) 101805. This court allowed defendants' petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010). This court also granted the motion of the Illinois State Ambulance Association to file a brief amicus curiae in support of defendants, and the motion of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association to file a brief in support of plaintiff, pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 345 (Ill. S.Ct. R. 345 (eff. Sept. 20, 2010)).

¶ 2 BACKGROUND

¶ 3 The accident at issue occurred on November 14, 2005. On that date, around 7:15 p.m., Williams, an employee of defendant Superior, was driving an ambulance westbound on 95th Street in Oak Lawn, Illinois. Williams, along with Superior employee Vernette Henderson, was transporting a patient on a nonemergency basis from Lincoln Park Hospital to a nursing home. Both Williams and Henderson were licensed emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Henderson attended to the patient while Williams drove.

¶ 4 Williams testified at her deposition that when the accident happened, she was driving without emergency lights or sirens. Williams was driving in the farthest right lane of three lanes of flowing traffic. A semi truck was in the farthest left lane, and a Chevrolet Avalanche truck was in the middle lane. As Williams was driving westbound, plaintiff, who had been traveling eastbound, made a left hand turn across the three lanes of westbound traffic and collided with the ambulance. The semi truck obstructed Williams' view of the traffic to her immediate left going eastbound on 95th Street, so Williams did not see plaintiff's vehicle turning left across the westbound lanes until the vehicles collided. Both Williams and Henderson passed drug tests administered by Superior pursuant to standard procedure.

¶ 5 Nasir Nasir testified at his deposition that he was driving a tow truck in the middle westbound lane of 95th Street when he saw the accident. Nasir said that it was rush hour and was dark outside. Traffic was heavy, and Nasir was stopped about 12 cars back from a traffic light because the traffic was backed up. Nasir testified that traffic in the right line was moving, likely because vehicles were making right turns. Nasir saw plaintiff's car, which was traveling eastbound on 95th Street, attempting to make a left turn across the westbound lanes. Nasir said there was no left turn lane where plaintiff was turning. Nasir testified that the vehicles in the far left and middle westbound lanes let plaintiff's car go, but as plaintiff was passing the far right westbound lane, the ambulance hit her. Nasir did not believe the ambulance was speeding. Nasir did not recall seeing a semi truck stopped in the traffic. Nasir testified that the ambulance hit the front right quarter panel of plaintiff's car and turned the car around.

¶ 6 Linda Sedakis, another eyewitness, testified at her deposition that on November 14, 2005, she was driving a Chevrolet Avalanche and was driving westbound on 95th Street in the middle lane. Sedakis said that the cars in the far left and middle had stopped for plaintiff's car. Sedakis did not recall any traffic in the right westbound lane, because most drivers used the lane as a right turn lane. Sedakis saw plaintiff turn in front of her and stop for a split second before inching farther. Sedakis did not think that plaintiff could see around her Avalanche. As plaintiff proceeded to turn left, Sedakis saw the ambulance approaching, driving the speed limit, which was either 30 or 35 miles per hour. After the accident, Sedakis spoke with a police officer and told him that she did not believe the ambulance driver was at fault, nor could she blame plaintiff. Sedakis did not see a semi truck on 95th Street.

¶ 7 Officer James Pacetti of the Oak Lawn police department testified at his deposition that he investigated the accident along with officers Michael Acke and James O'Brien. The officers estimated that plaintiff was traveling at 18 miles per hour, and that the ambulance was traveling at 31 miles per hour, when the accident occurred. The speed limit on 95th Street where the accident occurred was 30 miles per hour. The officers concluded that speed was not a factor in the collision. The officers determined that the ambulance hit plaintiff's car on the passenger side, and that plaintiff then was struck in the head by the ambulance.

¶ 8 Pacetti's conclusion concerning the accident was that plaintiff made a left hand off of 95th Street across three lanes of traffic, and was hit by the ambulance in the last lane. Two lanes of traffic had stopped, letting plaintiff's vehicle go, and as plaintiff was turning, she collided with the ambulance. Because one of the stopped vehicles was a larger vehicle, neither plaintiff nor Williams likely saw one another before the crash. Pacetti did not know why the traffic in the middle and far left lanes of westbound 95th Street was stopped, although he said that there is a traffic light about a block west of the accident site, and traffic can back up as far as the accident site. Pacetti testified that his opinion of fault was that plaintiff made a left hand turn in front of a car, and testified that plaintiff likely was ticketed for failure to yield the right of way.

¶ 9 Plaintiff testified that on the day of the accident, she was traveling eastbound on 95th Street and tried to make a left hand turn to go to a doctor's office. Plaintiff has no memory of the collision. Plaintiff remembers only that she awoke at Christ Hospital and remained there until January 2006. Plaintiff suffered brain injury from the accident and continues to receive therapy and treatment.

¶ 10 Plaintiff sued defendants for negligence. Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment based upon the immunity provisions of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Systems Act (EMS Act) (210 ILCS 50/3.150(a) (West 2006)). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of defendants, finding that the EMS Act applied to bar plaintiff's claim. As noted, the appellate court reversed, holding that the immunity provided in the EMS Act does not extend to third-party negligence claims based on the ordinary operation of a motor vehicle, so that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of defendants. 2012 IL App (1st) 101805. 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.

¶ 11 ANALYSIS

¶ 12 The first issue in this appeal is whether the appellate court correctly found that the immunity provision set forth in the EMS Act did not immunize defendants from negligence with regard to third parties. This case comes before us on the trial court's grant of summary judgment. Summary judgment is proper when the pleadings, depositions, admissions and affidavits on file demonstrate that there is no genuine issue of material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2006). This court's review of an appellate court's order reversing a trial court's order granting summary judgment is reviewed de novo. Rush University Medical Center v. Sessions, 2012 IL 112906, ¶ 15.

¶ 13 Further, in reviewing the appellate court's order reversing summary judgment, we are called upon to construe the EMS Act. Here too, our review of a court's interpretation of a statute is de novo. Abruzzo v. City of Park Ridge, 231 Ill.2d 324, 332 (2008).

¶ 14 It is well settled that the primary goal in construing a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. Abruzzo, 231 Ill.2d at 232. The best indication of the legislature's intent is the statutory language, given its plain and ordinary meaning. Nowak v. City of Country Club Hills, 2011 IL 111838, ¶ 11. When the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, it must be applied without resort to other aids of construction. Abruzzo, 231 Ill.2d at 332.

¶ 15 The portion of the EMS Act in effect at the time of plaintiff's accident provided, in pertinent part, that:

"(a) Any person, agency or governmental body certified, licensed or authorized pursuant to this Act or rules thereunder, who in good faith provides emergency or non-emergency medical services during a Department approved training course, in the normal course of conducting their duties, or in an emergency, shall not be civilly liable as a result of their acts or omissions in providing such services unless such acts or omissions, including the bypassing of nearby hospitals or medical facilities in accordance with the protocols developed pursuant to this Act, constitute willful and wanton misconduct." 210 ILCS 50/3.150(a) (West 2006).

¶ 16 In this case, the appellate court first held that the preceding immunity provision applied to Williams' nonemergency transport of a patient to a nursing care facility. 2012 IL App (1st) 101805, ¶ 17. The parties do not challenge this holding on appeal.

¶ 17 The appellate court next noted that a proper negligence claim must allege a duty owed by the defendant, a breach of that duty, and that the breach proximately caused the plaintiff's injuries. 2012 IL App (1st) 101805, ¶ 19. The appellate court noted that the duty owed by EMTs to patients arose from the provision of emergency or nonemergency medical services, which differed from the duty that Williams owed as an ambulance driver to third-party motorists such as plaintiff. Id. ¶¶ 19, 20. Accordingly, the appellate court stated that it had to ascertain whether the negligence contemplated by section 3.150(a) included negligence toward third parties. Id. ¶ 20.

¶ 18 The appellate court concluded that the EMS Act was silent, and therefore ambiguous, concerning whether the negligence contemplated by section 3.150 (a) included negligence toward third parties based upon the ordinary operation of a motor vehicle. Id. ¶ 21. The appellate court noted that sections 11-205 and 11-907 of the Illinois Vehicle Code (Vehicle Code) (625 ILCS 5/11-205, 11-907 (West 2006)) specifically addressed the duty of emergency vehicle operators toward other motorists. 2012 IL App (1st) 101805, ¶ 22. The appellate court further observed that both sections of the Vehicle Code showed that the legislature intended that, even in the emergency operation of an authorized vehicle, the driver of the authorized vehicle must maintain a due regard for the safety of other motorists. Id.

¶ 19 Presuming that the legislature intended for two or more statutes relating to one subject to be operative and harmonious, the appellate court concluded that in order to give full effect to the Vehicle Code, the EMS Act could not be read to immunize ambulance drivers from third-party claims of negligence in the ordinary operation of a motor vehicle. Id. ¶ 23. The appellate court held that to allow immunity to third parties would render meaningless the Vehicle Code's provisions that the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle must drive with due regard for the safety of all other drivers. Id. As further support for its holding, the appellate court noted that when the legislature wanted to immunize the negligent operation of a motor vehicle, it clearly expressed its intent in the statute, pointing to section 5-106 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Tort Immunity Act) (745 ILCS 10/1-101 et seq. (West 2006)), which expressly referenced the negligent operation of a motor vehicle in its immunity provision. 2012 IL App (1st) 101805, ¶ 24. The appellate court therefore reversed the grant of summary judgment in favor of defendants.

¶ 20 At the outset, we find that the appellate court erred in concluding that section 3.150(a) of the EMS Act is silent concerning negligence toward third parties. Contrary to the appellate court's interpretation, section 3.150(a) does not limit the statutory immunity set forth therein only to patients in the ambulance. Rather, the plain language of the statute clearly provides, in pertinent part, that "[a]ny person who in good faith provides non-emergency medical services in the normal course of conducting their duties shall not be civilly liable as a result of their acts or omissions in providing such services unless such acts or omissions constitute willful and wanton misconduct." (Emphasis added.) 210 ILCS 50/3.150(a) (West 2006). 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. 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.

¶ 21 Here, there is no dispute that Williams was providing nonemergency medical services in the normal course of conducting her duties when the accident with plaintiff occurred. Nonemergency medical services includes the transportation of a patient to a nursing care facility. The accident at issue was an act that occurred during the nonemergency medical service of transporting a patient. Pursuant to the plain language of the statute, then, Williams shall not be civilly liable as a result of her act or omission in providing such nonemergency medical services unless that act or omission constitutes willful and wanton misconduct.

¶ 22 The appellate court, however, read a limitation into section 3.150(a) that would limit the statutory immunity only to patients. The appellate court found that third parties were excluded from section 3.150(a) immunity. In doing so, however, 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. Solich v. George & Anna Portes Cancer Prevention Center of Chicago, Inc., 158 Ill.2d 76, 83 (1994). Where a statutory enactment is clear and unambiguous, a court is not at liberty to depart from the plain language and meaning of the statute by reading into it exceptions, limitations or conditions that the legislature did not express. Solich, 158 Ill.2d at 83. Section 3.150(a) does not distinguish between patients and third parties for purposes of immunity from negligence. Section 3.150(a) does not limit statutory immunity only to patients. Consequently, the appellate court erred in reading such a limitation into the statute.

¶ 23 Plaintiff and her amici also argue that the statute is limited to patients, because the term "such services" in the phrase "their acts or omissions in providing such services" refers back to nonemergency medical services and, thus, limits liability to the patient receiving the nonemergency medical services. Again, however, the statute is not so limited, and instead broadly states that a person shall not be civilly liable for their acts or omissions in providing such services, without limiting or placing conditions on those acts or omissions. The immunity set forth in section 3.150(a) looks to the nature of the services rendered, and not to the recipient of those services. Had the legislature intended to limit the statute as suggested by plaintiff, it could have provided that a person shall not be civilly liable to the patient. The legislature has not so limited the statute, therefore, we will not read such a limitation into the statute.

¶ 24 In an analogous situation, the appellate court declined to allow recovery for contribution, finding that the counterplaintiffs' claim for contribution was barred by the EMS Act. Brock v. Anderson Road Associates, 301 Ill.App.3d 168 (1998). In Brock, the decedent died of a heat-related illness while working for the counterplaintiffs, Anderson Road Associates and James Construction Corporation. Id. at 170. The counterdefendants, the Wauconda fire department and emergency medical technicians, had been sued for negligence and willful and wanton conduct relating to the death, while counterplaintiffs were sued for breach of duty to provide a safe workplace. Id. The negligence claims against the fire department and the EMTs were dismissed based upon their immunity under the EMS Act, and the willful and wanton claims were dismissed for insufficient evidence. Id. Thereafter, the counterplaintiffs filed a claim for contribution against the fire department and the EMTs. Id. The trial court dismissed the counterclaim for contribution with prejudice. Id.

¶ 25 The appellate court affirmed the trial court's order dismissing the contribution claims with prejudice. Brock, 301 ...


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