Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court on Misconduct Personal Injury Claim Against Tennis Club

An Illinois Appellate Court recently reversed the lower court’s order dismissing an Illinois personal injury case in Oelze v. Score Sports Venture LLC, d/b/a Score Tennis and Fitness Center, No. 1-09-1476. While the lower court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment based on its opinion that there was no evidence to support plaintiff’s claims of willful and wanton misconduct on the part of the defendant, the Appellate Court found that there was a question of fact regarding whether the defendant had acted recklessly. And since there were material facts to consider regarding the defendant’s actions, the trial court should not have summarily dismissed the case.

The Illinois personal injury case involves a plaintiff that was injured while playing at an indoor tennis club where she was a member. She became injured when she was caught her foot in a rope exercise ladder while running for a play. At the time the exercise ladder was being stored behind a curtain at the end of the tennis court. The plaintiff sustained a broken elbow and torn rotator cuff.

The plaintiff originally filed an Illinois personal injury lawsuit alleging negligence by the owner-operator of the Illinois tennis club. However, that case was dismissed after the defendant produced an agreement signed by the plaintiff upon her application for membership which included a provision stating that the plaintiff released the defendant “from any and all liability for any damage or injury” that might occur while using the defendant’s equipment and facility.

The trial court found that under the agreement the plaintiff had voluntarily waived any liability for fault on behalf of the defendant. The dismissal of the original Illinois personal injury claim is not at issue here. However, it should serve as a warning to anyone signing an agreement or release that these documents often include language releasing a party from liability regarding future injury or harm. Even many Illinois nursing homes are including mandatory arbitration clauses to prevent patients from filing lawsuits as a result of Illinois nursing home abuse.

After the negligence claim was dismissed, the plaintiff amended her complaint to include a count for willful and wanton misconduct on the part of the tennis club. The plaintiff alleged that the defendant demonstrated a conscious indifference to others’ safety when it placed the ladder in a concealed area, thereby creating a tripping hazard.

In response to the willful and wanton misconduct count, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment which denied it had any knowledge that the ladder was concealed behind the curtain and therefore did not consciously disregard the safety of others. This motion for summary judgment was granted by the trial court, which is the issue of plaintiff’s appeal.

The Appellate Court began its review by stating that a party may contract to avoid liability for its negligence and thereby bar any claims for fraud or willful and wanton negligence, such as the defendant tennis club did when it created the agreement for plaintiff to sign. The court agreed that such releases are valid and enforceable, unless the following exceptions occur:

(1) there is a substantial disparity in the bargaining position of the two parties;
(2) to uphold the exculpatory clause would violate public policy; or
(3) there is something in the social relationship between the two parties that would mitigate against upholding the clause.

Ultimately, the Illinois Appellate Court found that the trial court had erred when it granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding plaintiff’s willful and wanton misconduct count. The appellate court sided with plaintiff’s assertion that there were genuine issues of material fact as to whether the defendant acted with conscious disregard for her well-being.

According to the appellate the tennis club and its employees should have known that placing an object on the floor behind a court curtain, hidden from view of the players using the court, created a dangerous, hidden, tripping hazard. The ladder was a piece of equipment used in the tennis club’s fitness classes and was only available for use under the supervision of one of the defendant’s employees. Furthermore, the ladder was normally placed in or on top of an equipment box stored in the walkway behind the curtain, not on the floor under the curtain itself.

Given these facts, the appellate court found that there was a question of fact regarding whether the defendant’s efforts to prevent the danger caused by the ladder failed due to inadvertence or a reckless disregard for the safety of others. Therefore, the trial court was wrong in granting summary judgment to the defendant on the count claiming willful and wanton misconduct and the case would be returned to the trial court for handling.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury lawsuits for over 30 years, serving those areas in and around Cook County, including Hoffman Estates, Chicago, Highland Park, and Naperville.

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