Brookfield Zoo sits on publicly owned land. And every year, it receives a large amount of tax dollars to help fund operations.
But the zoo should not enjoy the same protections from lawsuits given to governmental organizations and their offshoots in Illinois, the state’s high court has ruled.
On Thursday, Sept. 24, the Illinois Supreme Court declared in an opinion the zoo does not pass crucial elements of the test used to determine whether an organization is a “public entity” under Illinois law, and so should not be shielded under the Illinois Tort Immunity statute from lawsuits filed more than a year after an alleged incident has occurred on its grounds.
The unanimous Illinois Supreme Court decision was authored by Justice Mary Jane Theis.
The ruling upheld a state appellate opinion, which had been authored by Justice Terrence Lavin of the Illinois First District Appellate Court. That decision had, itself, overturned the decision of Cook County Circuit Judge John P. Kirby.
The decisions centered on a personal injury lawsuit brought in 2012 against the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, by plaintiff Kristine O’Toole. She had alleged a single count of negligence against the zoo for injuries she said she suffered when she tripped and fell on pavement at the zoo during a 2010 visit.
Kirby had initially dismissed the complaint, agreeing with the zoo’s contention O’Toole’s lawsuit should have been barred by a one-year statute of limitations applied to lawsuits brought against public entities in Illinois.
The zoo had asserted it was a public entity under the law because it was “a not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of conducting public business;” resides on land owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District; operates under an agreement with the district giving district officials some oversight and police powers at 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.”
O’Toole appealed, however, and the appellate justices said other factors led them to conclude Brookfield Zoo should be treated differently under state law than Lincoln Park Zoo.
While Brookfield and Lincoln Park zoos both operate on publicly held land, the appellate justices noted Brookfield Zoo is operated by the largely autonomous zoological society, while Lincoln Park Zoo is wholly owned and operated by the Chicago Park District.
And, while the zoo receives public funds, those make up less than half of its annual revenue, with the majority coming from such sources as admission fees, memberships and donations, among others.
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.
In its opinion, the Supreme Court sided with the appellate panel and O’Toole.
Like the appellate court, the high court justices observed the nature of the relationship between the Cook County Forest Preserve District and the zoological society, noting the district “maintains control over the real property under the zoo” and the zoo must receive permission from the district “to sell, remove, or encumber any of the zoo’s buildings, enclosures, trees, or animals.” And the agreement between the district and the zoological society “allows the District to access the zoo at all times for general police visitation and supervision.”
“Other provisions in the agreement, however, indicate that the Society controls the daily operations of the zoo,” Theis wrote in the opinion, including language giving the society “’entire control and management’ of the zoo” and designating zoo workers as employees of the society, and not the Forest Preserve District, among others.
And, like the appellate court, the Supreme Court said the largely private sources of the zoo’s revenues weigh against its claim it should simultaneously enjoy the protected status as a public entity.
“We hold that the District does not exercise operational control over the Society, so the Society is not a local public entity,” the Supreme Court justices wrote.
O’Toole was represented in the action by attorney James L. Farina, of the firm of Hoey & Farina, of Chicago.