Let’s look at a recent tort immunity decision

Marty Dolan, principal at Dolan Law and his associate Karen Munoz represent victims of wrongful death and personal injury. His column “Law and Wellness,” appears in the Chicago Lawyer and her column appears regularly in the Law Bulletin. This week’s blog is written by Karen Munoz.

The Illinois Appellate Court handed down a recent decision on the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, which generally immunizes police officers from suit for conduct during the execution and enforcement of their duties. Although immunity issues can be very divisive in lots of cases and often boil to semantics over whether a governmental employee was acting in the course of their duties at a particular time, this decision is very logical and officers a common sense approach for dealing with future cases involving similar circumstances.

The case arose when the squad car of Officer Kelly, an Orland Park police officer, collided with the plaintiff’s car after Kelly responded to a call from dispatch on a separate traffic incident. The case went to trial and resulted in a directed verdict in favor of the police officer. The traffic incident to which Kelly was responding involved a white minivan and a blue Ford Taurus, the scene of which the driver of the white minivan had apparently left.

On the instruction of the officers who had pulled over the white minivan, Kelly went to the location of the blue Ford and asked the driver to go to other officers in order to identify the minivan and its driver. Kelly told the driver of the Ford he would follow her and meet her there. As Kelly began to follow the Ford, the collision with the plaintiff took place.

The plaintiff’s case alleged that there was no rational law enforcement basis for Kelly’s decision to follow the Ford driver to the scene where the minivan was pulled over so, at that point, Kelly ceased to be executing or enforcing the law. However, multiple officers testified that it was standard practice to do what he did and the evidence showed that at the time of the collision, Kelly was driving at a speed of below 20 miles per hour, with his emergency lights on. Further, the plaintiff admitted that a driver should pull over when a squad car is driving with its emergency lights on and the plaintiff did not do so in this case.

The appellate court undertook a detailed analysis of Illinois precedent on police officers in the execution and enforcement of law. The court noted that this question can rarely be answered by looking at a single distinct act of an officer. Rather, the execution and enforcement of the law is a greater “course of conduct designed to carry out or put into effect the law.” Applying that analysis, the appellate court agreed with the trial court in ruling that Officer Kelly’s act of following the Ford was “undeniably logical and consistent with enforcement circumstances.”

The plaintiff here conceded that Kelly’s instruction to the Ford driver to go to the scene where the minivan was pulled over was still execution and enforcement of the law but, as soon as he decided to follow the Ford driver himself, his enforcement activity ceased.

This decision is the latest immunity case to provide guidance as to what circumstances “execution and enforcement of the law” the court will apply the doctrine to.  The case is Stehlik v. The Village of Orland Park. 2011 IL App (1st) 091278.

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