The Illinois Appellate Court recently determined that the fact that a school’s “Cafetorium” was used for parties and ceremonies for sports teams and school band, chorus, and drama program performances did not make the property “public property intended to be used for recreational purposes” under the Tort Immunity Act. Accordingly, the school district could not rely on the immunity for recreational property to avoid a personal injury lawsuit by a student injured in the Cafetorium. This case is an important reminder to school districts that they will not be shielded from liability for all injuries that occur on school property. School districts should continue to maintain all property, including auditoriums, cafeterias, and other facilities that may be used for some arguably recreational uses, in a manner that mitigates the risk of injury.
In Abrams v. Oak Lawn-Hometown Middle School, a student fell in the school’s “Cafetorium,” a combined cafeteria and auditorium, and subsequently filed a tort suit against the district. The district moved to dismiss the suit, claiming that it was immune from liability under the Tort Immunity Act protection for public property used for recreational purposes. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss, and the Illinois Appellate Court affirmed.
The Appellate Court found that there was no indication that the Cafetorium was used for recreational purposes. Rather, the uses of the Cafetorium were all “educational or incidental to educational uses” such as school lunches, assemblies, and induction ceremonies into school groups. Although the school district argued that the use of the room for school band, chorus, and drama programs were recreational uses, particularly when the groups were giving performances, the court disagreed. The court held that chorus performances, band performances, and school plays have a primary purpose of instructing students rather than providing recreation to them, their friends and families, or the community. The court noted that the school had a separate gymnasium for recreational activities, and determined that immunizing the school district from tort liability in this case would be an unreasonable extension of a law, the purpose of which “is to encourage the development and maintenance of parks and similar recreational areas.”