Zoo’s Immunity Order Reversed by Illinois Appellate Court

A lawsuit was filed against the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates Brookfield Zoo, on land owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District. The case was filed by Kristine O’Toole for injuries that she suffered when she fell because of an alleged defect in the pavement.

The defendant, the Chicago Zoological Society, which is a not-for-profit corporation, moved to dismiss the lawsuit under the Illinois Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, which includes a shortened statute of limitations — that being one-year rather than two years for the usual tort claim. The shortened one-year deadline applies to “any not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of conducting public business.”

The Cook County judge granted the motion dismissing O’Toole’s case because she had not filed the lawsuit within the one-year statute of limitations from the date of her injury that the judge decided applied. She took an appeal claiming that the defendant did not qualify as a “local public entity” that would impose the one-year statute.

The Illinois Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s order stating that the Tort Immunity Act was created to protect “local public entities” and their employees from liability that arises from the operation of government. 745 ILCS 10/1-101.1.

Further, the court pointed out that Section 8-101(a) of the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, which has limited exceptions not applicable here, provides that no civil action for injury may be brought against the local public entity or its employees unless brought within one-year of the date on which the injury occurred or the cause of action accrued.

Even though the Chicago Zoological Society is a not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of operating a zoo, the parties disputed whether this defendant conducted public business.

In the Illinois Supreme Court case of Carroll v. Paddock, 199 Ill.2d 16 (2002), the Illinois Supreme Court was asked to decide whether a not-for-profit charitable hospital and a not-for-profit mental healthcare organization were local public entities under Section 1-206.

The court, in attempting to define a public business, found that status as a not-for-profit charitable corporation does not by itself quality a corporation as a local public entity. Further, it stated that while many private endeavors improve or affect the public interest, that alone will not render a private enterprise a public business.

Furthermore, the court essentially found that an organization’s funding should not be given too much weight, as the statute expressly required the inquiry to focus on the purpose to which the entity was organized, not how it was funded. The court also took notice of “public business” as commonly understood to refer to the government’s business. Accordingly, the Supreme Court found that a corporation does not conduct public business absent evidence of local governmental control, Carroll, 199 Ill.2d at 26.

In this case, the appeals panel found that the defendant Chicago Zoological Society did not show that it engages in public business. Even though an agreement from 1986 made clear that the zoo’s purpose was instruction and recreation of the public, the zoo’s furtherance of the public’s interest is not synonymous with conducting business within the meaning of the Tort Immunity Act. The zoo district also could not show that the park district, which owned the land where the defendant operates its business, does not own the business itself or all the property used to operate the business. The zoo was not been able to show that it was not directly owned by the park district, notwithstanding the defendant’s use of district property. There was no evidence that the park district had operational control over the zoo. The Brookfield Zoo receives less than half of its funding from the park district, including those funds received through taxes. That was not a substantial factor in the determination by the Illinois Appellate Court, but it also referred to the fact that the zoo has not shown that it was subject to regulations that are typical of governmental units.

In conclusion, although the park district may have some limited oversight of the zoo, this oversight does not amount to the control over daily operations contemplated by the Tort Immunity Act’s reference to public business. Further, since the zoo is not owned by the park district, it follows that the defendant does not constitute a local public entity. As a result, the appellate court needs to consider the parties’ arguments as to whether the zoo benefited the entire community. Because the zoo is not a local public entity to which the Tort Immunity Act’s one-year statute of limitation applies, the complaint was timely filed because it was filed within two years, and genuine issues of material fact exist with regard to the complaint’s merits.

Accordingly, the dismissal of the O’Toole lawsuit was reversed for further disposition in the trial court.

O’Toole v. Chicago Zoological Society, 2014 IL App (1st) 132652 (Aug. 28, 2014).

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling catastrophic injury cases, automobile accident cases, motorcycle accident cases and bicycle accident cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of another for more than 38 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Northbrook, Northfield, Glenview, Mount Prospect, River Grove, Elmwood Park, Oak Park, Cicero, Evergreen Park, Elk Grove Village, Oak Lawn, Riverdale, Chicago (Englewood, Canaryville, Bridgeport, Pilsen, Little Italy, Chinatown, Ukrainian Village, Wicker Park, Roscoe Village, Lake View), Bensenville, Itasca, Oakbrook, Naperville and Clarendon Hills, Ill.

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