Jonathan Bilyk Sep. 2, 2014, 12:41pm

While it's open to the public every day of the year, sits on Cook County Forest Preserve District land and receives tax dollars, Brookfield Zoo is not entitled to the legal protection afforded to public entities under Illinois law, according to a state appeals court.

The First District Appellate Court late last month determined that a woman suing the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, should be allowed to press her negligence and personal injury claim against the zoo, because it is not a public body protected by a one-year statute of limitations under Illinois’ Tort Immunity statute.

The panel's Aug. 28 opinion was authored by Justice Terrence J. Lavin, with justices James Fitzgerald Smith and James R. Epstein concurring.

The ruling overturned Cook County Circuit Judge John P. Kirby's previous decision to dismiss the complaint brought by plaintiff Kristine O’Toole.

He had sided with Brookfield Zoo, which had argued that because O’Toole filed the complaint more than a year after the incident she alleges caused her injuries, the zoo was protected by the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act.

The justices, however, saw the matter rather differently.

“While the (Cook County Forest Preserve) District may have some limited oversight of defendant, this oversight does not amount to the control over daily operations contemplated by the Tort Immunity Act's reference to public business,” Lavin wrote for the panel.

The case first landed in court in July 2012, when O’Toole filed suit a single-count negligence complaint against Brookfield Zoo. She alleged she suffered injuries while visiting the zoo on Aug. 7, 2010, when she tripped on pavement as a result of the zoo's failure to properly “maintain and operate the premises.”

In response, Brookfield Zoo moved to dismiss the case, arguing that O’Toole failed to file her suit within the one-year statute of limitations specified by the Tort Immunity Act.

This act provides immunity to public entities from certain claims of liability and provides a shorter time frame for plaintiffs to bring suits in comparison to the statute of limitations for suing non-public entities.

Asserting its status as a local public entity under the law, the zoo said it was “a not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of conducting public business;” resides on land owned by the forest preserve district; operates under an agreement with the district giving district officials some oversight and police powers in the zoo; receives funding from the district and must submit its annual budget for review by the district; and operates an attraction that “benefitted the entire community without limitation.”

Kirby agreed, and dismissed the case.

O’Toole appealed, and the First District panel reversed, saying Kirby overlooked certain key facts.

The justices noted the operating agreements give the Forest Preserve District “access to its property for general policing and supervision," but said other factors led them to draw a line of distinction between Brookfield Zoo and other otherwise public zoos, such as Lincoln Park Zoo, which is wholly owned and operated by the Chicago Park District.

While Brookfield Zoo operates on publicly-owned land, the justices noted the operating agreement still delegates “entire control and management” over Brookfield Zoo to the Chicago Zoological Society, not the Cook County Forest Preserve District Board of Commissioners.

Also, while the zoo receives public funds, those dollars make up less than half of the zoo’s annual revenue, the justices pointed out.

Further, they said the zoo’s employees do not receive state government worker pension benefits, and the zoo is subject to regulation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, from which government employers are exempted.

All of these factors together, Lavin explained for the panel, should indicate the zoological society is not engaged in “public business,” as defined by state law, and thus, should not be considered a local public entity.

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