Illinois Appellate Court Finds Schools Not Liable For Student Injury And Deaths In Two Separate Lawsuits

Last fall, the Illinois Appellate Court issued opinions on two different cases involving the tort immunity of school districts. In both cases, the court declined to find the schools liable.

In Choice v. YMCA of McHenry County, the court upheld the dismissal of claims brought by three deceased students’ estates alleging that North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School and the Board of Education of the City of Chicago were liable for the students’ fatal drownings during an overnight field trip. According to the Court’s opinion, the students spontaneously snuck out of their sleeping area in the early morning to go paddleboating on the Fox River, where they fatally drowned. The court found that the Charter School and the Board were immune from liability under Section 3-110 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, which provides that school districts (including charter schools) and school officials are not liable for any injury occurring on, in, or adjacent to any waterway, lake, pond, river, or stream not owned, supervised, maintained, operated, managed, or controlled by the school district or school. Although the plaintiffs claimed that the School and Board had supervisory authority over the Fox River because they had the right and obligation to deny their students access to the River, the court found that supervising students is not the same as supervising the River. Supervision of a waterway requires a right to control access to the body of water at issue, not merely the right to control the behavior of a small group of individuals in it. The court also held that Section 3-110 contained no exception for willful and wanton conduct.

The Illinois Appellate Court in Leja v. Community Unit School District 300 also upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit alleging the school district engaged in willful and wanton conduct when a student was injured using a volleyball net crank in her school’s gymnasium. The student alleged that she was operating a volleyball net crank when the crank struck her in the face, and that the school district knew or should have known that the volleyball net equipment was “unsafe, dangerous and/or defective,” was “aware of prior difficulties with the volleyball net equipment,” and that it knew or should have known that the equipment was likely to cause injuries.

Under Section 3-106 of the Tort Immunity Act, a school district is immune from liability for a student’s injury where the liability is based on the existence of a condition of any public property intended or permitted to be used for recreational purposes, unless the school district proximately caused the student’s injuries by willful and wanton conduct. The court found the student did not allege sufficient facts to infer that the school district was aware that directing the student to operate the volleyball net crank would naturally and probably result in injury or posed a high probability of serious physical harm sufficient to constitute willful and wanton conduct.

Although the student alleged that the school district was aware of prior difficulties with the crank, the court found the student did not sufficiently allege that the difficulties were ones that the district knew or should have known had resulted in injury or had a high probability of resulting in injury. Rather, the court found that the district had apparently used the crank on nearly a daily basis for more than a year without incident. The student did not allege that the equipment was improperly installed at the time of her injury, or that the district was aware of any problems with the installation. The court also rejected the student’s argument that instructing a student to use a product bearing a warning label demonstrates an utter indifference to or a conscious disregard for the student’s safety, merely because the label warns of an underlying danger. Likewise, it found that the district did not engage in willful and wanton conduct by not directing the student to read the manufacturer’s instructions before using the product. Although the instructions may have directed the user of the equipment to tighten the screws, the student did not allege that the screws were not tightened.

The court noted that had the screws not been tightened, and had the district known of this condition and had reason to know that it posed a high risk of injury, then directing the student to read the manufacturer’s instructions may have been one way for the district to show concern for the student’s safety. But, on the facts alleged by this student, the district’s alleged failure to have the student read the instructions did not rise to the level of willful and wanton, nor did the student allege any other facts that would permit the inference that the district was on notice of a high risk of injury posed by the volleyball net equipment.

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