School District Not Liable for Student’s Death Caused by Dangerous “Game” Played at School

By April 30, 2014April 29th, 2015News

In Brooks v. McLean County District Unit No. 5, the Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal of a complaint alleging that the death of a student was the result of the school district’s willful and wanton conduct. 2014 IL App (4th) 130503. The court held that the complaint simply labeled conduct as willful and wanton but failed to allege facts that demonstrated either a deliberate intention to harm or a conscious disregard of Hampton’s welfare.

The student’s death occurred on May 18, 2010, after he played a “game” called “Body Shots” in the boys’ bathroom at school. The game involved students voluntarily punching each other in the abdomen, chest and ribs. After the student participated in the game, he left the bathroom, collapsed in the hallway and later died.

The plaintiff alleged that the school district and the school’s principal and/or support principal knew that students played “Body Shots” in school bathrooms for more than one year prior to the student’s death. The plaintiff argued that the district failed to monitor the bathrooms; failed to educate students regarding the dangers of the game; allowed students to play it on school premises; and failed to enforce policies and procedures to prevent students from playing it.

The district court granted McLean’s motion to dismiss and the plaintiff appealed arguing that the public-duty rule does not apply; that she sufficiently pled facts to establish willful and wanton misconduct by McLean; and that the complaint was not barred by the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Tort Immunity Act).

The Illinois Appellate Court explained that in order for the plaintiff to recover damages based on willful and wanton conduct, she must plead and prove that McLean owed a duty to the student; that McLean breached this duty, causing his death; and that McLean acted willfully and wantonly, meaning either with intent to harm or with a disregard for the student’s welfare.

The public-duty rule establishes that a governmental entity does not owe a duty to protect individual members of the general public. The Appellate Court agreed with the plaintiff and held that it did not apply in this case. Here, the plaintiff did not allege that McLean failed to protect the student, but rather that it failed to supervise students, educate students on the danger of playing the game and failed to enforce existing policies. Therefore, although courts have applied the public-duty rule in a school context, the Appellate Court found that it did not apply here and that McLean owed a duty to this student.

Additionally, the Appellate Court found that the failure to monitor students in the bathroom is a supervisory act under the Tort Immunity Act, and thus, McLean is immune unless it acted willfully and wantonly. The Appellate Court held that the plaintiff failed to allege facts to demonstrate the district acted in a willful and wanton manner. Therefore, the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the case.