In the first of six opinions issued in civil cases this morning, the Illinois Supreme Court held that publicly-owned recreational facilities have broad immunity from liability to users who fall on snow or ice.
The question arose in Moore v. Chicago Park District. Plaintiffs’ decedent was leaving a facility owned by the Chicago Park District after attending a senior water aerobics class. Three inches of snow had fallen two days earlier, and the Park District had plowed the parking lot and shoveled and salted the sidewalk; but as a result, a small pile of snow had collected at the edge of the lot. Decedent fell, breaking her leg. She developed complications during surgery to repair the leg, sustaining brain damage, and subsequently died. Her Special Administrator sued the Park District, stating one claim each under the Survival Act and the Wrongful Death Act.
The Park District moved for summary judgment, alleging it was immune from liability pursuant to Section 3-106 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, 745 ILCS 10/3-106. The Circuit Court initially denied the motion, but then decided to certify two questions relating to the breadth of Section 3-106 immunity. The Appellate Court affirmed, holding that no immunity was available because the decedent had been injured as a result of the Park District’s negligent snow plowing activities, not the condition of the property. A five-Justice majority of the Supreme Court reversed.
Section 3-106 of the Tort Immunity Act provides that “Neither a local public entity nor a public employee is liable for an 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,” barring willful and wanton conduct.
Writing for a five-Justice majority, Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier began by considering whether it mattered that the snow was an “unnatural” accumulation – meaning that the five-inch high pile of snow on which the decedent slipped was where it was as a result of the Park District’s plowing, as opposed to having fallen there. The Court noted that Section 3-105 of the Tort Immunity Act made an express distinction between natural accumulations (absolute immunity) and unnatural ones (qualified immunity). Since Section 3-106 made no such distinction, the natural/unnatural issue must not matter to the scope of immunity.
Once that initial issue was disposed of, it was obvious that plaintiff’s suit was doomed. Snow and ice was a condition of property, not an activity conducted on the property, the Court found. The Court rejected the idea that the decedent was injured by the activities of the employees operating the snow plow, as opposed to the snow itself. Nor did it matter whether the snow or ice was “affixed” to the property, the Court held, overruling Stein v. Chicago Park District. The majority also noted that its holding was in harmony with the statute’s purpose of encouraging the maintenance and development of public recreational areas.
Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride and Justice Charles E. Freeman dissented, arguing that plaintiff’s decedent had clearly been injured as a result of a negligently conducted activity – defendant’s snow-plowing – rather than a “condition” of the property.