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Are Public Entities Immune From Responsibility for Injuries that Occur in Parking Lots Adjacent to Recreational Properties?

In Illinois, cities and other public entities are not responsible for injuries that occur on property intended primarily for recreational use. However, it isn’t always clear whether that immunity extends to nearby spaces such as sidewalks and parking lots. In the case of Rexroad v. City of Springfield, the Illinois Supreme Court considers whether municipalities are required to protect against injury in cases where dangerous conditions exist in a multi-use parking lot adjacent to a high school football field.

The Facts

Matthew Rexroad, a manager for the Springfield Lanphier High School football team, attended a practice session on August 12, 1995. At some point during the practice, a coach asked him to retrieve a helmet from a locker room in the school gymnasium. Matthew took the most direct route off the field and exited through the north gate. However, he was unable to reenter when he returned with the helmet because the gate had been locked. He then walked through a parking lot and headed toward the west gate. Matthew focused his attention on the field as he walked. While traversing the lot, he stepped into a hole he’d seen in the parking lot earlier that day and broke his ankle.

The hole was 64 square feet in size and 4 inches deep. It had been created when City workers removed a fire hydrant.  They filled the resulting hole with sand, and the City had also placed barricades and orange ribbon around the hole. However, the barricades had been removed prior to Matthew’s fall; they were lined up against a fence near the hole.

The parking lot was located between the gymnasium and football field, and it served the entire school complex. In addition to being near the gym entrance, the freshman and sophomore school entrance doors were located immediately west of the lot.

Following his injury, Matthew Rexroad filed a lawsuit against the City of Springfield alleging negligence (carelessness).

Negligence, the Rule of Open and Obvious Dangers, and Public Entity Immunity

In Illinois, public entities must exercise ordinary care to maintain their property in safe condition for legal users who engage in appropriate, foreseeable activity. In other words, the property should be safe for citizens to use in accordance with its intended purpose. To prove that a public entity has been negligent in maintaining its property, injured parties must demonstrate that the entity knew (or should have known) of a dangerous condition, had sufficient time to either fix the condition or protect against injury, and failed to do so.

However, there is a legal exception that grants Illinois public entities immunity from liability for injuries that occur on properties meant for recreational use. The law states, “Neither a local public entity nor a public employee is liable for any injury where the liability is based on the existence of a condition of any public property intended or permitted to be used for recreational purposes, including but not limited to parks, playgrounds, open areas, buildings, or other enclosed recreational facilities, unless such local entity or public employee is guilty of willful and wanton conduct proximately causing such injury.” In other words, injured parties cannot recover damages when they are injured on recreational property unless the entity or its employees acted with blatant disregard for the likely consequences.

Recreational property immunity aside, public entities have a duty to protect users from dangerous conditions based on four factors: the reasonable foreseeability of the injury, the likelihood of injury, the extent to which preventing the injury is burdensome, and the consequences of imposing that burden. Furthermore, public entities generally have no duty to protect against injury when a dangerous condition is open and obvious and it is unlikely that people’s attention will waver. However, a duty to protect against injuries exists in situations where it’s reasonable to expect that people’s attention may be distracted, thus preventing them from discovering a hazard, forgetting a previously discovered hazard, or protecting themselves against a hazard.

The Decision

In response to Matthew Rexroad’s lawsuit, the City of Springfield filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing the evidence was insufficient for a jury to find in Matthew’s favor even if interpreted in the light most favorable to him. In particular, the City claimed it was immune to a negligence claim because the property where Matthew fell was intended for recreational use. Furthermore, the City said that even if it wasn’t immune, it had no duty to protect against Matthew’s injury because the hole was an open and obvious hazard. The trial court agreed with the immunity claim and granted the motion.

Matthew Rexroad then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court. This court also agreed that the immunity claim applied and thus the City had no liability. The court supported this position by referring to a prior case, Sylvester v. Chicago Park District, in which a woman tripped on a misplaced concrete car stop in a parking lot adjacent to the Soldier Field football stadium. In that case, the court determined the parking lot was considered recreational property, therefore the Park District had immunity.

Matthew Rexroad appealed once again, this time to the Illinois Supreme Court. When considering the case, the Court said there were two issues to review: whether immunity applied and, if not, whether the hole was an open and obvious condition against which the City had no duty to protect.

Arguing that a school property’s primary purpose is educational (not recreational), Matthew Rexroad said his case differs from Sylvester. Therefore, he asserted that the City should not be immune from a negligence claim. The City disagreed and said that Sylvester designated a nonrecreational space—the parking lot—as recreational because it granted access to the stadium and increased its usefulness as a recreational facility.

The Supreme Court agreed with Matthew Rexroad on this point. The Court noted that in Sylvester, the parking lot’s sole purpose was to benefit a recreational facility. However, the same could not be said of the lot where Matthew broke his ankle. Because the lot provided direct access to areas of the high school that were used for nonrecreational purposes, it could not be classified as a recreational property. The Court supported its rationale with findings from prior cases.

Furthermore, the Court noted that recreational use “may be so incidental that [the law] does not apply” and said the immunity law isn’t intended to remove liability in all places where recreation could potentially occur. The Court also emphasized that the activity being performed at the time of an injury is irrelevant; what matters when determining immunity is the property’s character. Although Matthew Rexroad was engaging in a recreational activity, football practice, he was doing so on a property that had never previously been used for recreational purposes. Additionally, there was no evidence that recreational activity had been encouraged on the lot.

The Supreme Court stated that applying immunity in this case would necessitate immunizing all nonrecreational property located near school recreational facilities. This would grant the City immunity in cases where students were injured in the lot while parking their cars, walking to class, and so on, which goes against the intent of the law.

Because immunity did not apply in this case, the Court next determined whether the City had a duty to protect Matthew Rexroad from injury. The City claimed the hole into which he fell was an open and obvious condition and thus there was no obligation to protect against injury. However, the Court rejected this argument.

The Supreme Court said it was reasonably foreseeable that students would be distracted when walking through the parking lot. Therefore, even if the danger was obvious, the distraction exception applied and the City had a duty to safeguard against injury. Moreover, the Court concluded that Matthew’s broken ankle was a likely result of this particular hazard. The burden to protect parking lot users against such an injury would have been minimal—and, in fact, the City had previously taken precautions by putting up barricades. The Court noted that this might have meant the City did not consider the hole to be an open and obvious danger.

Because immunity did not apply in this case, and because the City did not uphold its duty to protect Matthew Rexroad from being injured by the hole in his high school’s parking lot, the Supreme Court determined that it had been inappropriate for the trial court to grant summary judgment.

Conclusion

Public entities in Illinois are generally required to maintain their property in reasonably safe condition. When they fail to do so, citizens who sustain injuries as a result of this failure can win a negligence lawsuit. However, recreational properties have immunity. Therefore, people are unable to recover damages if they become injured on a public property that is used or permitted primarily for recreational purposes.

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