Second District remands hayride suit against Burr Ridge Park District for discovery; says "they want to have their cake and eat it, too"

By Jonathan Bilyk | Mar 18, 2014

A DuPage County park district will need to allow discovery to the lawyers representing a man suing it for injuries he sustained when he fell from a step stool while exiting a hay wagon ride at a district fall festival, a state appellate court has ruled.

On March 5, a panel of the Second District Appellate Court in Elgin denied a rehearing of a Jan. 22 opinion that upheld the ruling of DuPage County Associate Judge Patrick J. Leston, who continued proceedings on a motion for summary judgment brought by the Burr Ridge Park District, as it continued its defense against a suit brought by plaintiff Steve Jiotis.

The panel also vacated a contempt order that Leston had been entered against the park district at the district’s own request, as a legal maneuver to allow the appellate court a chance to review Leston’s decision to compel the park district to participate in the discovery process sought by Jiotis in response to the summary judgment request.

The opinion, which remanded the matter back to the DuPage County circuit court for further proceedings, was authored by Justice Robert Spence, with justices Robert D. McLaren and Mary Seminara-Schostok concurring.

The case centers on a September 2010 incident at Burr Ridge’s annual Harvest Fest. At the event, the district operated hay wagon rides for visitors, one of the more popular attractions at the festival that draws thousands each fall, the opinion notes.

Jiotis claims he rode on the hay wagon at the 2010 festival, and sustained injuries when he attempted to exit the wagon after a step stool that had been set up by the wagon’s operator buckled, causing him to pitch forward onto the ground.

He sued one year later, alleging the park district behaved with negligence and willful and wanton misconduct by allowing festival patrons to disembark from the hay wagon onto a “unmaintained and unsafe step stool,” which, Jiotis contends, was “rusted and physically damaged in areas visible” to the operator.

In July 2012, the trial judge partially granted a request from the park district to dismiss the negligence claim against the park district under Illinois’ Tort Immunity Act, which exempts local governments from most of these types of claims, but allowed proceedings to continue on the question of willful and wanton misconduct.

The park district then quickly moved to ask the court for summary judgment against Jiotis, claiming the plaintiff could not prove his case. Among other items to support its contention, the park district argued Jiotis could not prove the step stool was defective and that it was immune from the action because park district officials “exercised discretion,” as defined by the Tort Immunity Act, in using the step stool.

In response, Jiotis argued he needed time to conduct discovery to respond to the motion, because the park district had not made available either the step stool or the hay wagon operator for examination.

The trial judge agreed with Jiotis, and continued the matter, pending discovery. The park district then asked the judge to hold it in contempt as a procedural step needed to appeal the discovery order.

On appeal, the justices backed the trial judge, saying he acted within his discretion to order discovery and continue proceedings on the summary judgment motion.

Further, the panel held that discovery in the matter was not only allowable, but warranted, and chided the park district for resisting it.

They noted “it very well may be” that Jiotis cannot prove his case, but said key facts from the operators can't be known without discovery.

“Defendants (Burr Ridge Park District) want to have their cake and eat it, too,” Spence wrote for the panel. “They want us to find that plaintiff cannot prove his case, without allowing him the procedures he is due to make his case.”

The plaintiff did not oppose the vacation of the contempt order, noting it was “a good-faith effort” by the park district to win review of the trial court’s discovery order.

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