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Chicago Housing Authority Responsible for Injuries: Steam Pipe Guards

In large cities such as Chicago, many tenants live in public housing that is overseen by municipal organizations. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) is one such organization. Unfortunately, many buildings and units managed by municipal organizations are not in good repair. This can result in serious injuries to both tenants and their guests. In the case of Vesey v. Chicago Housing Authority, the Illinois Supreme Court addresses the question of whether such organizations are responsible for injuries that occur as a result of an apartment’s poor condition.

The Facts

On March 25, 1984, six-month-old Lorenzo Vesey was severely burned when he touched an exposed steam pipe in his babysitter’s apartment, a public housing unit that was located at 120 N. Hermitage and managed by the CHA. The babysitter, Ms. McClinton, had moved into the unit in 1976. The pipe’s protective guard was not in its proper place at that time; furthermore, during her eight-year tenancy, the CHA had made no repairs or modifications to the unit’s heating system. Similarly, Ms. McClinton had never attempted to repair the steam guard.

On the night of the accident, Lorenzo was sleeping in bed next to Ms. McClinton’s sister, Josephine. The child was sleeping on his stomach with pillows propped on either side of his body. Several hours after midnight, Josephine awoke to Lorenzo’s screams. He had crawled to the steam pipe and touched it with his left hand and thigh, which sustained severe burns and resulted in the amputation of a finger.

Seeking damages for her son’s injuries, Lorenzo’s mother filed a lawsuit against the CHA alleging negligence (carelessness). Specifically, she alleged that the CHA had a duty of ordinary care to protect inhabitants by maintaining its property in safe condition; she also alleged the CHA had breached its duty by failing to discover and repair the steam pipe’s hazardous condition. Additionally, Ms. Vesey alleged that the CHA was aware of the defective steam guard.

Negligence & Public Entity Liability for Tenant Injuries

To prove negligence in Illinois, injured parties must demonstrate that the defendant has a duty to protect them from injury. The injured party must then show the defendant failed to uphold this duty, causing the injury. If injured parties are unable to prove the defendant has a duty to protect, they cannot win a lawsuit.

Local public entities in Illinois have a general duty to maintain their property in reasonably safe condition as described in the Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, which states: “A local public entity has the duty to exercise ordinary care to maintain its property in a reasonably safe condition for the use in the exercise of ordinary care of people whom the entity intended and permitted to use the property in a manner in which and at such times as it was reasonably foreseeable that it would be used, and shall not be liable for injury unless it is proven that it has actual or constructive notice of the existence of such a condition that is not reasonably safe in sufficient time prior to an injury to have taken measures to remedy or protect against such condition.” In other words, the law holds public entities responsible for keeping their properties safe. Additionally, the law says public entities can only be held liable for injuries that occur when entities are aware (or should be aware) of unsafe conditions, have adequate time to address those conditions, and fail to do so.

Illinois landlord-tenant law stipulates that landlords are not generally responsible for injuries incurred at a property that is leased to a tenant, except when the landlord retains control of the premises.

That said, there are several exceptions to this general rule. A landlord can be held responsible for injuries suffered when the landlord takes action and does so in a careless manner. Further, a landlord can be held responsible for injuries when a tenant or third party reasonably relies upon the landlord to maintain or repair the apartment.

The Decision

In response to Ms. Vesey’s lawsuit alleging negligence, CHA moved for summary judgment, arguing that the evidence was insufficient for a jury to find in Ms. Vesey’s favor even when interpreted in the light most advantageous to her. CHA presented two prior cases in which it was not held liable for injuries caused by exposed hot steam pipes. In both cases, the CHA avoided responsibility because of the Illinois rule that landlords are not usually responsible for tenants’ injuries that occur in the apartment. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the case.

Ms. Vesey then appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, claiming the CHA had a duty to protect her son under the Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act as quoted above. The appellate court agreed and reversed the trial court’s decision, claiming the act intended for public entities to maintain all of their property in reasonably safe condition and thus CHA had a duty to protect Lorenzo from the exposed pipe.

The CHA appealed this decision to the Illinois Supreme Court, claiming the appellate court misinterpreted the Tort Immunity Act. The CHA noted that the decision contradicts common law and imposes a unique, previously unheard of duty for landlords to maintain and inspect property over which they have no control. The CHA also argued that, in accordance with common law, it had no duty to protect against Lorenzo’s injury since it occurred in a private apartment over which it lacked control.

Ms. Vesey disagreed, saying the CHA had assumed a duty to prevent tenants from being burned when it installed guards on the steam pipes. Furthermore, she claimed the installation had been performed negligently, resulting in her son’s injury. She also argued the CHA had a duty to protect Lorenzo because of its policy for maintaining the steam guards and, when needed, replacing them.

The Supreme Court disagreed with the appellate court’s rationale regarding the Tort Immunity Act, highlighting the act’s purpose to “protect local public entities and public employees from liability arising from operation of government. It grants only immunities and defenses.” In other words, the act cannot create responsibility for negligent acts that does not already exist under common law.

The Supreme Court also noted that all common law defenses available to private individuals also apply to local public entities and employees. Therefore, the Illinois rule under which landlords are not generally responsible for injuries sustained on a leased premises applies in this case. Because of this, the CHA could not be considered liable for Lorenzo’s injuries without proof that one of the exceptions to the general rule applies.

In addition, the Supreme Court rejected Ms. Vesey’s argument that the CHA was responsible for her son’s burns due to negligent steam guard installation. The Supreme Court noted that the installation had occurred 29 years prior to Lorenzo’s injury, and there was no evidence to suggest the guard in Ms. McClinton’s apartment had been improperly installed. Moreover, the Supreme Court concluded that the apartment had been out of CHA control in the decades since installation due to tenant occupation. Ordinary factors, such as tenants moving furniture or even just the passage of time, could have been responsible for the guard’s improper positioning.

The Supreme Court also disagreed that the CHA had a duty to Lorenzo as a result of maintaining the steam guards. Although it’s unclear whether the CHA had a formal policy to maintain and replace steam guards at its properties, all parties agree that the CHA had never performed maintenance on the guard or heating system in Ms. McClinton’s apartment. Because the CHA did not maintain that specific guard, it could not have been negligent in its maintenance.

Finally, the Supreme Court also noted that Ms. McClinton had no reasonable expectation that CHA would repair the displaced steam guard. The Court said that the CHA’s duty was limited to the original guard installation in 1955, noting the original installation did not impose a duty to maintain the guard continually. There was no evidence to show that the tenants relied on the CHA to fix the guard, nor was there evidence to suggest that the tenants had reason to believe the CHA would fix it.

Although she initially claimed to have filed complaints with the CHA after her sister was burned on the pipe, Ms. McClinton said otherwise while under oath. She stated that she had never spoken to the CHA about issues with the steam guard, nor had she written to the CHA or received correspondence from the CHA regarding the guard. Because Ms. McClinton had never asked for repairs or otherwise communicated with the CHA, she could not have expected that the guard would be repaired or replaced and therefore she did not rely on the CHA to do so. Because there was no reliance on the CHA to maintain or repair the steam guard, the landlord is not responsible for injuries sustained.

For all of the reasons above, the Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision to overturn the summary judgment and affirmed that the trial court’s decision was correct.

Conclusion

Under ordinary circumstances, Illinois public entities such as the Chicago Housing Authority are not liable for injuries sustained on their rental property in situations where they are not in control of the rented unit. The Illinois Tort Immunity Act does not impose any additional responsibilities on such entities or hold them to higher safety or maintenance standards than private landlords. Rather, public entities have the same responsibilities as all other landlords who manage property.

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