School District Not Shielded by Tort Immunity Act for Injury that Occurred in Non-recreational Area

By April 15, 2014April 29th, 2015News

The Illinois Appellate Court recently held that the Tort Immunity Act (“Act”) did not shield a school district from negligence liability when a student was injured by a fall in the school’s combined cafeteria and auditorium, or “Cafetorium,” because the area was used for educational and not recreational purposes.

In Abrams v. Oak Lawn Hometown Middle School, et al., a student brought suit after she fell and was injured during the National Junior Honor Society induction ceremony. The school district argued that it was shielded from negligence liability under the Act.

The trial judge denied the district’s motion to dismiss and certified the following question for appeal: “Where an injury occurs on an area of public property which has both recreational and nonrecreational purposes, should Section 3-106 immunity apply when said area is located within a public school where the primary character of the area and overall facility is educational and nonrecreational?”The Appellate Court explained that the legislature created immunities in order to encourage public entities to develop and maintain recreational activities without the fear of exposing taxpayer funds to damage awards. The immunity exemption depends on the public entity’s intended or permitted use for the property, rather than on the specific type of property. The statute does not mention public schools, public school cafeterias, or public school auditoriums.

At the outset, the court noted that there is no indication in the record that the school intended or permitted the Cafetorium to be used for recreational purposes. Rather, the uses described were either all educational or incidental to educational uses, with the exception of parties and ceremonies for school sports teams and occasional meetings convened by local taxpayers.

The daily use of the room, however, included educational and incidental uses such as student assemblies, school club meetings and induction ceremonies to school groups.

Therefore, the court rejected the school district’s contention that the school band, chorus and drama programs amount to a “recreational use” of the Cafetorium. Rather, chorus performances, band performances and school plays are intended to instruct students. Additionally, the court noted that the school has a separate gymnasium for recreational activities.

The court concluded that because the Cafetorium has not been used for recreation in the past nor does the school encourage recreational use of the Cafetorium, it does not fall within the scope of Section 3-106 of the Tort Immunity Act.

The court added that finding that the school district was immune from tort liability in this situation would be an unreasonable extension of a law, which has the purpose of encouraging development and maintenance of parks and similar recreational areas. Therefore, the plaintiff’s action against the school district for injuries she suffered by a fall in the Cafetorium was not barred.

School districts continue to face growing liability for student injury related claims. Contact Rob Swain with your tort immunity inquiries.  To read the full text of the court’s opinion, click here: