How to Get Around School District Immunity in Illinois – the Willful and Wanton Standard

There are several nuances to personal injury cases involving school districts. One of the nuances to suing a school district is the standard required by Illinois courts. In many cases, school districts are immune from mere negligence, and plaintiffs must plead a higher standard. Under Section 3-106 of the Tort Immunity Act, a local public entity, such as a school district, may [only] be liable for injuries caused by willful and wanton conduct.  745 ILCS 10/3-106 (West 2017).  For more information about school district and municipal liability, visit our page HERE.

What is the Willful and Wanton Standard?

Under the Tort Immunity Act, willful and wanton conduct is “a course of action which shows an actual or deliberate intention to cause harm or which, if not intentional, shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others or their property.”  745 ILCS 10/1-210 (West 2017).  Willful and wanton conduct “includes a range of mental states from actual or deliberate intent to cause harm, to utter indifference for the safety or property of others, to conscious disregard for the safety of others or their property.”  Murray v. Chicago Youth Center, 224 Ill.2d 213, 236 (2007). “Willful and wanton conduct is a hybrid between negligent acts and intentionally tortious behavior.  Under the facts of one case, willful and wanton misconduct may be only degrees more than ordinary negligence, while under the facts of another case, willful and wanton acts may be only degrees less than intentional wrongdoing.” Kurczak v. Cornwell, 359 Ill. App. 3d 1051, 1060 (2d Dist. 2005).  (Internal quotation marks omitted).

The Recent Case of Barr v. Cunningham

In a recent case decided by the Illinois Supreme Court, the court held that the plaintiff had not shown that the school district’s conduct in failing to provide protective eyewear during a hockey game was willful and wanton. Barr v. Cunningham, 2017 IL 120751. In Barr, the plaintiff was playing a game of floor hockey during a high school physical education class.  Id. at ¶ 3.  The plaintiff was injured when a ball bounced off a stick and hit him in the eye.  Id. at ¶ 4.  The game was played with plastic hockey sticks and squishy balls instead of wooden sticks and pucks.  Id.  No safety goggles were provided to the students.  Id. at ¶ 5.  The education instructor testified that she did not instruct the students to wear goggles because she felt the modified equipment negated the need for goggles.  Id. at ¶ 6.  Other safety rules were also imposed.  Id.  The education instructor and chairperson were not aware of any prior injuries from floor hockey, and the instructor had not seen a student hit in the face prior the plaintiff’s injury.  Id. at ¶¶ 7-8.  The trial court entered a directed verdict for the defendants, and the Illinois Supreme Court upheld the directed verdict.  Id. at ¶ 27.

In reaching its decision, the Court focused on the fact that there was no evidence that the defendants knew or had reason to know that this game of floor hockey, with plastic sticks and a squishy ball, could cause an injury.  Id. at ¶ 27.  There was no evidence that any prior injuries had occurred with the use of a “safety ball”, and plaintiff did not present evidence of any other injuries suffered by anyone playing hockey under any circumstances.”  Id. at ¶ 21.

How Can A Plaintiff Prove Willful and Wanton Conduct?

Illinois courts have generally found willful and wanton conduct exists in cases involving a school district’s ignoring dangers of a hazardous activity, a school district’s failure to remediate an obvious danger, or a school district’s inaction after knowledge of impeding danger.

A knowledgeable personal injury attorney will know how to apply the willful and wanton standard in cases against school districts.  If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of a school district’s conduct, contact the personal injury law firm John J. Malm & Associates to learn more about how you may be entitled to receive compensation.