Lakeview Pantry | Youtube screenshot
CHICAGO — A man who fell while leaving a Chicago food pantry is not entitled to damages from the pantry or its Catholic church landlord for his injuries, a state appellate court has ruled.
In its 18-page opinion filed Sept. 24, the Illinois First District Appellate Court three-judge panel affirmed a lower court's ruling in favor of Lakeview Pantry and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago.
The appellate court found, in part, that plaintiff Jake Graham's reliance on his own testimony about the details of his fall was flawed in presenting "only conjecture suggesting that a landscape trench filled with bushes would have prevented this injury or stopped his fall," the opinion said.
"Even accepting all his statements as true, the plaintiff has only established that the allegedly dangerous landscaping trench possibly caused or contributed to his injury, and this is insufficient to establish proximate cause," the opinion continued. "As speculation would be required to determine the issue, causation cannot be a triable issue of fact in this case. Therefore, plaintiff’s proximate cause argument fails."
Justice Terrence J. Lavin wrote the opinion. Justice Michael B. Hyman and Justice Aurelia Pucinski concurred.
Lakeview Pantry, a 501(c)3 nonprofit now marking its 50th year in operation, works "to overcome hunger, improve mental wellness, and achieve life goals," according to information on its website. The pantry reportedly provides more than 1.7 million pounds of food to nearly 9,000 people each year.
Graham filed a premises liability lawsuit against the pantry and the archdiocese over injuries he suffered in a fall at St. Alphonsus Church in the 1400 block of Wellington Avenue in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood in January 2015.
"This case stems from Jake Graham's fall from the threshold of a doorway in St. Alphonsus Hall, which ultimately resulted in lacerations and scarring to his face," Lavin wrote in the background portion of the opinion. Graham, who was visiting the pantry inside St. Alphonsus at the time, alleged the pantry and archdiocese had negligently maintained the premises and breached their duty of reasonable care.
"[Graham] testified that, on arriving to St. Alphonsus, he had no problem opening the door and stepping up about 10 or 11 inches over the threshold through the doorway," the background portion of the opinion said. "After entering, [Graham] walked across a landing and down seven stairs to the basement, which houses the parish school gymnasium, a concession stand, and the food pantry."
About 100 other people also were present to receive food donations and Graham waited about 30 to 45 minutes to receive his donation, which included a "banana box" that Graham requested, "weighing about 20 pounds, to carry his food items," the opinion said.
Graham carried the box "with both hands in front of his belly and walked back up the basement stairs," the opinion said. "In his testimony, he explained that the box protruded about a foot-and-a-half in front of him and obstructed his vision."
A pantry volunteer held the exit door open for Graham, speaking with him at the time. Graham testified that "this conversation distracted him, causing him to look at the volunteer rather than at the ground," the opinion said. "He then unexpectedly encountered a drop while stepping over the threshold, lost his balance, and fell to the left."
Graham testified that he dropped the food box and "tried to catch himself, took a few steps, then hit a 1-foot dropoff, where the asphalt turned into a landscape trench, and he went face first into a metal fence, suffering head injuries," the opinion said. "He noted there were no warnings about any change in elevation."
The pantry and archdiocese subsequently filed separate motions for summary judgment, citing Graham's deposition testimony, as well as that of pantry and archdiocese employees and the property's lease agreement, producing a record that indicated no one witnessed the events leading to Graham's fall. A volunteer witnessed the actual fall.
The pantry argued in part that, based on its lease agreement with the archdiocese, it was entitled to summary judgment because it owed no legal duty to maintain the area where Graham had been injured.
"Lakeview Pantry noted the deposition testimony of several archdiocese employees corroborated its interpretation of the lease, as they verified that it was the church maintenance department and not Lakeview Pantry that maintained the foundation of the building, asphalt landing, iron fence, and flower bed where plaintiff was injured," the justices said.
The archdiocese, in its motion, argued that Graham's claim was time-barred by the Illinois statute of repose for construction, pointing out that the entryway had been constructed in 1911 with improvements in 2002 and 2003. Graham countered that the archdiocese owed an ongoing duty of care to operate and maintain the premises in a safe manner.
A Cook County Circuit Court judge granted both of the defendants' motions and denied Graham's motion to reconsider.
In its opinion affirming the Cook County judge's opinion, the appellate court rejected Graham's argument that the pantry's decision to place a warning sign on the door after his fall created "a genuine issue of material fact regarding exclusive ownership and control over the access areas." Graham's reliance on court precedent "is misplaced" because the precedent referred to remedial actions "used to show control and maintenance over property when there is no clear and unambiguous lease, specifying repairs and maintenance of the property," the opinion said.
"In this case Lakeview Pantry's lease ...clearly states that the landlord is responsible for all structural repairs, supporting Lakeview Pantry's proposition that it did not control the area where plaintiff fell," the justices said. "Furthermore, in weighing the consequences of placing the burden on Lakeview Pantry as the renter and the magnitude of that burden, we find the archdiocese as landlord is best able to prevent harm to others in the common area because it retains the right to control the area."
Graham has been represented by attorneys with the firm of Fisher & LaMonica, of Chicago.
The defendants have been represented by the firms of Nielsen Zehe & Antas and Heineke & Burke, of Chicago.