In Brooks v. McLean County District Unit No. 5, the Illinois appellate court found that a public school district was immune from liability for a junior high school student’s death after the student participated in a “body shots” game with other students. This decision re-affirms that in lawsuits alleging that a student was injured because the public school district failed to adequately supervise students, the school district is immune from liability unless there are facts to establish that the school district engaged in “willful and wanton” conduct. Despite the student’s tragic death, the court found that the alleged facts failed to satisfy the high threshold for establishing willful and wanton conduct by the school district.
The lawsuit was brought by the estate of a junior high school student who died after participating in a violent "body shots” game in which male students voluntarily punched each other as hard as they could with closed fists in the abdomen, chest, and ribs, in the boys’ bathroom at school. After participating in the game, the student exited the bathroom and collapsed in the hallway, and later died from his injuries. The lawsuit alleged that the school district was liable for the student’s death because it failed to supervise the students and educate them regarding the dangers involved in the game, despite allegedly being aware that students at multiple schools had routinely played the game for more than a year prior to the student’s death.
Under the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, a public school district cannot be held liable for failing to adequately supervise students unless the school district engaged in willful and wanton conduct. The Act defines willful and wanton conduct as “a course of action which shows an actual or deliberate intention to cause harm or which, if not intentional, shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others or their property.” In this case, the court found that the facts regarding the school district’s alleged failure to supervise the students failed to meet this high threshold. While the lawsuit alleged that students had previously been injured playing the game, there were no allegations that the school district had any knowledge of these past injuries to its students. Nor were there facts to establish that the school district was fully aware of the extremely violent nature of the game. Finally, there were no allegations that the school district had any reason to know that the student who died was more likely to participate in the game than any other student.
Because the facts were insufficient to establish that the school district engaged in willful and wanton conduct, the school district’s statutory immunity barred the lawsuit. Accordingly, the court found that the lawsuit was properly dismissed. The court’s reasoning would also apply to a similar failure to supervise claim brought against another type of local public entity covered by the Act, such as a community college, municipality, or park district.