Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court’s New Trial Order Based on Alleged Confusing Jury Instructions

A Cook County jury’s not-guilty verdict for Tinley Park Roller Rink, a south suburban roller rink, will stand after the Illinois Appellate Court reversed a trial court’s order of a new trial. The appeals panel stated that there was nothing wrong with the jury instructions allowed by the trial judge that were used by the jury to reach its verdict.

In March 2016, the trial judge ordered a new trial for the plaintiff Marie Largen who filed a lawsuit alleging negligence against the Tinley Park Roller Rink citing a potentially confusing Illinois Civil Jury Pattern Instruction (IPI) 60.01 that quoted the entire Roller Skating Rink Safety Act and may have thrown jurors off during their deliberations.

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the trial judge’s order for a new trial on plaintiff’s post-trial motion in a unanimous decision. The appeals panel rejected Largen’s counsel’s argument that including the statute’s assumed-risk language asked the jurors to answer a purely legal question when reaching its decision.

“. . . [T]he instruction properly tasks the jury with determining whether under the evidence presented to it at trial, the roller rink breached any of its duties, so as to impose liability, regardless of whether the plaintiff had assumed the risk of skating,” stated the appellate decision.

“This is a question of fact, and not one of law, and is consistent with the purpose of I.P.I. 60.01, which is to permit a plaintiff to use the violation of a statute as evidence of the standard of care, and the defendant to rebut that evidence of negligence by proof that it acted reasonably under the circumstances.”

Largen was 53 at the time of this December 2015 trial. She sued the roller rink in 2012 after suffering a broken wrist from falling while skating backward.

After the close of evidence, she requested the jury be instructed with I.P.I. 60.01 and suggested including three subsections of the Roller Skating Rink Safety Act that several witnesses discussed during their testimonies.

The subsections suggested discuss a skating rink operator’s duties to comply with skating rink safety standards, have at least one floor supervisor present for every 200 skaters and maintain the rink’s skating surface in a reasonably safe condition.

Alternatively, the defendant roller rink requested that the judge instruct the jury with its own version of the instruction 60.01, which included a statute section detailing a skater’s responsibilities while using the rink as well as a skater’s possible assumption of risk while skating.

Counsel for Largen argued during the jury instruction conference by objecting to including the statute’s assumption-of-risk language. Counsel argued a jury should not be allowed to determine what can bar a lawsuit – especially in this case when such an argument already survived a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Largen’s lawyer then suggested the jury receive neither party’s proposed instruction, contending it would only confuse the jurors if the decision to instruct them on this skating act required such a long and complicated discussion between the judge and the lawyers.

The trial judge decided to instruct the jurors on the whole statute.  The jury also received the instruction regarding comparative negligence ahead of its deliberations, and it returned a verdict in favor of the roller rink after three days of trial.

Largen’s motion for a new trial in December 2015 arguing that the judge erred in allowing the jurors to use an instruction that included the skating act’s assumed-risk provision.  The judge initially denied the motion outright in February 2016, however, a longer order was entered in March 2016 that granted Largen’s request for a new trial.

On appeal, it was argued that Section 30 of the Skating Act – which states a skater’s assumption of risk “is a complete bar of suit and is a complete defense” to a lawsuit against rink operators for injuries arising out of that assumed risk – called for the jurors to reach a legal conclusion in its verdict.  The appeals panel disagreed noting the rest of that section includes the provision “. . . unless the operator has violated his or her duties or responsibilities under the [a]ct.”

“The plaintiff’s position would have merit if the aforementioned paragraph ended by concluding that assumption of risk is always a complete bar to any injuries resulting from the assumed risk of skating.”  The appeals panel also found enough evidence existed in the trial record to support the verdict. In its holding, the panel cited testimony from the rink’s general manager which indicated the rink’s floor was properly manned, inspected and maintained – the only duties required by the skating act – at the time of Largen’s injury. Accordingly, the Illinois Appellate Court reversed the trial judge’s order for a new trial and therefore the jury’s verdict in favor of the roller rink stands.

Marie Largen v. Tinley Park Roller Rink Inc., 2017 IL App (1st) 16-1319-U.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling truck accident cases, premises liability cases, car accident cases and catastrophic injury lawsuits for individuals, families and the loved ones who have been injured, harmed or killed by the negligence of another for more than 40 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Lake Bluff, Gurnee, Round Lake, Hinsdale, Tinley Park, Evanston, Elmhurst, Winnetka, Wilmette, Barrington, Aurora, St. Charles, Waukegan, Libertyville, Chicago (Wicker Park, Rogers Park, Albany Park, Jefferson Park, Hegewisch, East Side), Homewood, Highwood and Highland Park, Ill.

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