Illinois Park District’s Poor Inspections Do Not Satisfy Willful and Wanton Conduct Requirement Under Illinois Tort Immunity Act – Tagliere v. Western Springs Park District

A recent Illinois personal injury lawsuit involving the injury of a seven year-old girl at a local playground brought up issues of tort immunity in Illinois. Tort immunity laws are meant to determine to what degree a municipality, in this case the park district responsible for maintaining the playground, is immune from its actions. In Steven Tagliere, etc. v. Western Springs Park District, No. 1-09-2633, the plaintiff alleged that the Western Springs Park District was negligent in its maintenance of a seesaw at its park.

Seven year-old Taiylor Tagliere was playing on a seesaw at a park owned by the Western Springs Park District with five other girls when her ankle became lodged in the middle section of the seesaw, resulting in a broken ankle. Steven Tagliere, Taiylo’rs father, testified that when he later went to inspect the seesaw it was missing several bolts, which was evidence that the seesaw contained an “obvious defect.” Under Illinois tort immunity laws, the alleged defect needs to be obvious in order to satisfy one of the requirements for the municipality’s liability.

However, the other factor that the plaintiff must prove is that the failure to maintain the seesaw constituted “willful and wanton misconduct” on behalf of the park district. It was the plaintiff’s failure to prove this that led to the trial court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s claim, despite the presence of an obvious defect. The plaintiff appealed to the Illinois Appellate Court, stating that the lower court had erred in dismissing the case and asking the court to reconsider the evidence.

During the discovery phase of the Illinois personal injury lawsuit, the plaintiff had clearly established that there was a visible defect in the seesaw and that the park district had failed to recognize this defect despite numerous routine inspections. In addition, the park district employee who preformed these inspections testified that he was unable to find any defects with the seesaw when he inspected it following Tagliere’s accident.

However, the plaintiff had photographs of the seesaw immediately after the accident occurred, which clearly showed that there were bolts missing. Also, inspections by other employees at the park district as well as an employee of the seesaw manufacturer confirmed that these bolts were missing after Tagliere’s injury, which made the seesaw unsafe. Therefore, the plaintiffs had established that there was a defect in the seesaw at the time of the personal injury.

However, in order for a court to find a municipality liable for such a defect, the plaintiff needs to also demonstrate that the defect’s presence was the result of a willful and wanton disregard for the public’s safety by that municipality. The issue that the Appellate Court needed to examine was whether or not this failure to recognize the defect constituted willful and wanton misconduct; the plaintiff contended that it did, while the park district argued that it did not.

The Appellate Court considered the evidence and while it agreed that the park district’s inspector had failed to identify the seesaw’s defect on numerous occasions, it did not find that his conduct satisfied the requirements for willful and wanton clause. Specifically, the court did not feel there existed a deliberate intention to cause harm, or a conscious disregard for others’ safety. Under §1-210 of the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, willful and wanton misconduct is defined as “any action that is intended to cause harm or, if not intentional, shows an utter indifference or conscious disregard for the safety of others or their property.”

At most, the court found that the inspector’s failure to discover the missing clamps was negligent, but did not constitute a willful and wanton disregard for people’s safety. Because of the heightened requirements under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, if the plaintiff fails to prove the presence of a willful and wanton disregard for the public’s safety then the municipality cannot be held liable for the defect. Therefore, the Appellate Court affirmed the Circuit Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s personal injury case on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to prove that the park district was negligent.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois personal injury cases for individuals and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including LaGrange, Morton Grove, Burbank, Oak Forest, Willmette, Buffalo Grove, and Lincolnwood.

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