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
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.