Cook County Record

Saturday, February 22, 2020

IL Supreme Court: Conant High School can't be sued for student's gym class floor hockey eye injury

By Dan Churney | Mar 27, 2017

Law money 06

The Illinois Supreme Court has reversed an appellate ruling, saying a Cook County judge was right to toss a suburban high school student’s suit, because the suit did not show a gym teacher was at fault for failing to make students wear goggles during a floor hockey game, which left the student with an injured eye. 

The March 23 decision was delivered by Justice Anne Burke, with concurrence from Justices Lloyd Karmeier, Charles Freeman, Robert Thomas, Rita Garman, Thomas Kilbride and Mary Jane Theis. 

The decision went against Evan Barr in his suit against Township High School District 211. The district covers part of northwestern Cook County, including schools in Palatine, Schaumburg and Hoffman Estates. 

On June 3, 2010, Barr was a 15-year-old student at James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates. He was playing floor hockey that day with other students, when the sponge-like ball being used, bounced off his plastic stick and injured one of his eyes, permanently dilating a pupil. 

Barr, through a guardian, sued the school district in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging the physical education teacher, Laurel Cunningham, should have directed the students to wear protective goggles, which were available in the gymnasium. 

The case went to jury trial in January 2015. After evidence was presented, but before the jury started deliberating, the school asked Judge Diane Shelley for a directed verdict, claiming Barr failed to present evidence of “willful and wanton conduct” on Cunningham’s part, which was sufficient to overcome the school’s general immunity from such lawsuits. Shelley agreed, finding the school was not liable for Barr’s injury. 

Barr appealed. On March 30, 2016, the Illinois First District Appellate Court, in a 2-1 decision, ruled the jury – if it had had the chance – could have considered the teacher’s failure to make students wear goggles to be enough of an indifference to student well-being as to make the school liable. The court overturned Shelley’s ruling, ordering a new trial. The school then sought and found favor with the state high court. 

Supreme Court Justice Burke determined the teacher indeed showed concern for safety by having students play with plastic sticks and “squishy” balls, instead of wooden sticks and pucks. Further, the teacher had a number of rules in place to further ensure safety, such as a prohibition against players jabbing each other with the sticks.

“The fact that she (Cunningham) did not take the additional step of requiring goggles does not establish a conscious disregard for her students’ safety. Plaintiff failed to introduce any evidence at trial that Cunningham either knew or had reason to believe that a serious injury could occur as a result of students playing floor hockey. The students had played the same game with the same equipment on multiple occasions, and no student had been injured,” Justice Burke observed. 

Burke went on to say no evidence was presented showing the hockey game to be an “obviously dangerous activity.”

The case did not deserve to go to the jury, because “no jury could find for the plaintiff on the issue of willful and wanton conduct,” Burke concluded.

Barr has been represented by Kaiser Law, of suburban Bensenville. The school district has been defended by the firm of Judge, James & Kujawa, of suburban Park Ridge.

The Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, as well as the Park District Risk Management Agency and the Illinois Governmental Association of Pools, filed friend-of-the-court briefs with the state Supreme Court.

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Organizations in this Story

James B Conant High SchoolIllinois Supreme CourtIllinois First District Appellate CourtKaiser LawIllinois Trial Lawyers AssociationJudge, James, Hoban & FisherTownship High School District 211