The Chicago Park District remains immune from liability stemming from the death of a woman who fell in a parking lot that got snow plowed, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled today.
The high court, in a 5-2 decision, ruled in the park district's favor in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Roberta Minor Moore, acting as special administrator of the estate of Sylvia Lee Moore.
The Supreme Court's majority decision reversed a 2-1 1st District Appellate Court decision that ruled against the park district. Today's decision returned the case to the Cook County Circuit Court for further proceedings.
In January 2006, Moore fell in the parking lot of the South Side's Fernwood Park after attending a senior water aerobics class. District employees plowed the parking lot after several inches of snow fell over the weekend. Moore later died from her injuries.
The lawsuit asserted that the district engaged in negligence by improper snow removal that led to Moore's injury and subsequent death.
The district claimed immunity under Section 3-106 of Illinois' Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act. The act states that local entities cannot be considered liable for injuries caused by "a condition of any public property intended or permitted to be used for recreational purposes."
Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier says in today's majority decision, "(W)e reject plaintiff's allegations that the decedent was injured by the actions of defendant's employee in negligently shoveling and plowing snow, as it was not the employee's actions, but the snowy and icy condition of the parking lot, which caused the injury."
"In this case, the existence of snow and ice was not an activity conducted on the defendant's property, but rather a condition of the property," the majority decision says.
But Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride wrote a dissent joined by Justice Charles E. Freeman.
"I believe the majority's decision expands immunity beyond what the legislature intended in enacting Section 3-106," Kilbride says in the dissent.
"In sum, the injury here was not caused by the property itself, but by the allegedly negligent snow removal activity," the dissent says.
Moore's attorney, Richard J. Grossman, a partner at Steinberg, Burtker & Grossman Ltd., called today's decision a clear example "of legislating from the bench."
Kilbride's dissent "effectively lays out all of the flaws of the (majority) opinion and truly expresses my sentiment of the majority's opinion," he said.
In the underlying case, the trial court submitted a certified question to the 1st District asking if an unnatural accumulation of snow and ice constitutes the "existence of a condition of any public property."
The appeals court majority, in a decision written by Justice Sheldon A. Harris, answered the question negatively and said snow and ice "are temporary and are not permanent conditions of real property."
But Justice Maureen E. Connors wrote a dissent, saying "(T)he fact that the snow and ice in this case allegedly accumulated unnaturally is irrelevant to the question of immunity under Section 3-106."
The Supreme Court granted the district's petition for review.
Today's majority decision cited Connors' dissent and agreed with her finding regarding unnatural accumulation. It also cited as controlling precedent a 1994 Illinois Supreme Court decision, McCue v. Peoria Park District, 163 Ill. 2d 125.
Justices Robert R. Thomas, Rita B. Garman, Anne M. Burke and Mary Jane Theis joined the majority decision. Roberta Minor Moore, etc. v. Chicago Park District. No. 112788.
George P. Smyrniotis, risk management senior counsel for the park district, said in a statement that the district appreciates that the high court "overruled the judicially created test whether to apply the immunity afforded public recreational property owners under Section 3-106 … and returned consideration in this regard back to the plain language of the statute."
The Park District Risk Management Agency filed an amicus curiae brief with the high court supporting the park district. The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the plaintiff.
"I think that the majority's decision is really in line with what was settled Supreme Court precedent," said Edward F. Dutton, the risk management agency's director of claims and legal services.
Leslie J. Rosen, who wrote the brief for ITLA, said today's majority decision "wipes out a cause of action against all public entities."