City of Chicago Not Liable for City Resident’s Faulty Staircase – Hess v. City of Chicago

An Illinois appellate court found that the City of Chicago was immune from liability regarding a city resident’s fall on a dangerous back staircase. While the plaintiff filed a claim against the building owner, she also filed a personal injury claim against the City of Chicago. However, the trial court granted the City’s motion for summary judgment, a decision which the plaintiff sought to reverse in its appeal. Hess v. Flores, et al., 1-08-1653.

The Chicago personal injury lawsuit arose after the plaintiff, Rebecca Hess, fell from the 2nd floor, rear staircase of the apartment building where she lived. At the time of her fall a piece of the staircase’s handrail was missing; in its place was yellow caution tape. According to City documents, the rear staircase at 2050-2052 W. Summerdale Avenue, Chicago had been in disrepair for several years and constituted a dangerous condition.

In the two years prior to Ms. Hess’s accident, the rear staircase had been subjected to multiple City inspections. The conclusion of each inspection was that the staircase represented a “dangerous and hazardous condition.” Not only had the City cited the owner on multiple occasions over the years, but eventually began judicial proceedings to help correct the apartment’s building code violations. In fact, it was because of the City’s involvement that the plaintiff filed a claim against the City of Chicago even though they were not directly responsible for Ms. Hess’s injury.

However, in its Chicago personal injury complaint the plaintiff argued that the City of Chicago had a duty to keep her safe and had breeched that duty when it failed to reinforce the conclusions of its assessments. Typically, a public entity is not subject to the same duty as private entities, a provision that is governed by the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/1–101 et seq). The purpose of tort immunity is to prevent public funds from being used to pay for legal damage claims instead of their intended public use.

In its review of the nature of the City’s duty, the Illinois Appellate Court examined Section 2–105 of the Tort Immunity Act, which states

A local public entity is not liable for injury caused by its failure to make an inspection, or by reason of making an inadequate or negligent inspection, of any property, other than its own, to determine whether the property complies with or violates any enactment or contains or constitutes a hazard to health or safety. 745 ILCS 10/2–105 (West 2008).

The court interpreted this section of the Act to show that the City was immune from any liability regarding poor inspections, unless those inspections dealt with City of Chicago property. Since the plaintiff’s fall was on private, not public, property, this clause infers that the City is immune from her personal injury claim.

However, the plaintiff’s claims against the City of Chicago alleged that it acted in a willful and wanton manner when it contributed to her fall by stopping the repair work on the back staircase. Shortly before the plaintiff’s fall, the owner of the apartment building had hired a non-contracted resident to begin making repairs to the back stairwell. However, there were no permits for the work being done, a fact that was realized by city inspectors when they checked in on the projects. In plaintiff’s complaint and appeal she alleged that it was the City who stalled the work on the back staircase despite the missing handrails and that its behavior could be classified as willful and wanton conduct.

When reviewing the plaintiff’s allegations of willful and wanton behavior, the appellate court reviewed the applicable sections of the Illinois Tort Immunity Act. Upon its review, the appellate court found that none of the sections contained language regarding the willful and wanton allegations. In these instances, the Illinois Supreme Court has held that if the immunity statute lacks an exception for instances where the party has engaged in willful and wanton conduct, then the court should not assume an immunity exists. Therefore, the appellate court held that even if the City of Chicago had acted in a willful and wanton disregard for the plaintiff’s safety, that it would still be immune from liability.

The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claims against the City of Chicago. However, this does not limit the plaintiff from recovering any damages for her personal injury claims – the plaintiff’s case against the building owner and person performing the staircase repairs is yet to be decided by the circuit court. And because both remaining defendants are private parties they are not eligible for immunity under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act.

Kreisman Law Offices had been handling Illinois personal injury lawsuits for injured families and individuals in and around the Cook County and Chicago areas, including Evanston, Downers Grove, Bolingbrook, and Wheaton.

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