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Case Notes: September 2016

CASE NOTES

Summaries of recent legal matters in and around Chicago

New Law Puts Bicyclists and Motorists on Equal Footing.

S.H.A. 625 ILCS 5/11-1502
PUBLIC ACT 99-785; H.B. 5912;
Highways and Roads-Traffic Rules and Regulations-Bicycles

There has been an interesting legislative follow-up to several recent high-publicity cyclist injuries and deaths, including the case discussed in last month's ALG Illinois Case Commentary about the first divvy bike rider killed. On August 12, 2016, House Bill 5912 was signed into law, amending the Illinois Vehicle Code to provide that bicyclists on a highway are entitled to all of the rights that are enjoyed by motorists, including the ones dealing with right of way.1

The bill was reportedly initially advanced by a plaintiff's attorney after he represented the family of a bicyclist killed in a collision with a vehicle at an intersection where north and southbound drivers have stop signs but east and westbound vehicles do not. The motorist was charged with failure to yield but the case was dismissed when the judge ruled there were conflicting rulings as to whether or not bicyclists have the same rights as motorists under Illinois law. Most of those decisions dealt with somewhat vague, and defensively useful, definitions as to whether a bicycle qualified as a vehicle under various state laws.

The original version of Bill 5912 was fairly expansive, providing that every driver shall yield the right of way to anyone operating a bicycle. After opposition from several groups, including some in law enforcement, due to overbreadth, the language was amended to provide simply that bicyclists have the same rights and duties as motorists. That amended bill passed both the House and Senate with only one vote in opposition. Several observers and involved persons have noted that a likely reason for the easy passage of the measure is the fact that it is not changing state law; it is merely clarifying existing law to ensure that motorists and bicyclists both enjoy the same protections in court. House Bill 5912 is to take effect in January 2017 and will likely remove a potential legal defense for some motorists involved in accidents with bicyclists.

Paralyzed Jockey Recovers Nothing At Trial.

Rene Douglas, et al. v. Arlington Park
Racecourse LLC, et al.,

Cook County Case No.10 L 5518

A 42-year-old male jockey, was injured when he fell from his horse during a race and landed on the synthetic track surface at Arlington Park International Racecourse. He sustained spinal fractures with permanent paraplegia, with $830,000 in medical expenses. In a high-speed, high risk sport, where falls are relatively common and fraught with danger, the Plaintiff tried a novel approach to lay blame for his injuries - suing those who made and provided the ground he landed on.

The jockey and his wife brought product liability claims against the manufacturer of the synthetic track which was installed in 2007, two years before the accident, to replace a dirt surface. They also sued the owners of the venue. Plaintiffs claimed the course was unsafe because improper maintenance and its synthetic surface, which was made of plastic fibers, rubber and sand with a wax coating, and which allegedly had sheer angle and sheer strength that were double acceptable limits, caused the jockey to stick to the surface upon impact, for ten to twenty milliseconds, thus causing his spine to fracture. Plaintiffs claimed the prior dirt surface was softer and allowed for more slide when jockeys fell, and would have not caused these injuries.

The venue and operators argued that the maintenance of the surface met manufacturer's requirements; that the manufacturers had provided no warning of the potential for a person to momentarily stick to the surface; and most significantly, that the Plaintiff would have suffered his injuries on any surface based on testimony of the Plaintiff's own treating physician. They also argued that the sole proximate cause of the Plaintiff's injuries was actually the conduct of another jockey who bumped into the Plaintiff's mount which caused it to clip the heels of another horse and fall.

The manufacturer and parent companies settled for confidential amounts during pre-trial motions. The Plaintiffs' settlement demand to the venue Defendants was $15,000,000, and Plaintiffs sought $28,000,000 at trial. The venue Defendants offered nothing, and that was what the jury awarded - nothing. The jury found that "the conduct of some person other than the defendants was the sole proximate cause of the plaintiffs' injuries." Clearly, these venue Defendants benefitted from some solid liability risk analysis.

Spectating Grandmother Falls At School Basketball Game and Scores at Trial

Idella Price v. Chicago Board of Education,
Cook County No. 13 L 9635

The Plaintiff, a 74-year-old grandmother, was on her way to sit in the bleachers on the floor of a school gym to watch her granddaughter's elementary school basketball game. However, school personnel stopped her and told her she had to go to the bleachers in the balcony, where she had never been before. Of the balcony's three stairways, only one had a handrail, and all of them were blocked by spectators sitting on the steps, who were not forced to move out of the way by school personnel. The Plaintiff was forced to work her way through the people, down the 16-inch high bleacher seats, in order to reach the front row where her grandson had saved her a seat. She fell while trying to do this and fractured her left humerus and left tibia. These injuries did not require any surgeries but did require physical and occupational therapy, with $47,000 in medical expenses.

The Plaintiff argued that the Board of Education was willful and wanton in forcing her to descend from the balcony bleachers and in allowing a dangerous condition on the premises by leaving the bleacher balcony stairs all blocked with sitting people. She made a settlement demand of $200,000 and sought $327,000 at trial.

The Board of Education employed a rather curious defensive strategy. Board employees admitted: (1) that they knew people regularly sat on the stairs; (2) that there was a protocol to have a member of the event staff stationed in the balcony to prevent people from blocking access to the stairs; (3) that they did not do this; and (4) that they knew the balcony was operating in violation of Chicago Building Code. However, the Board denied liability because they believed the age of the school building allowed it to be "grandfathered in" under a previous version of the building code. The Board also argued that the Plaintiff failed to exercise ordinary care for her own safety in trying to traverse the tall seats. The Board offered nothing in settlement.

The Board's strategy proved unsuccessful.. The jury found that the Board's conduct was willful and wanton, and returned a verdict for $267,000 - more than five and a half times the medical costs for a case where there were no surgeries or permanent impairment and no lost earnings claims.

Charter School where Bully Killed Other Student Pays Millions

Charmayne Prince v. AMIKids Infinity
Chicago, et al.,
Cook County No. 13 L 1549

A story that grabbed headlines when it shocked Chicago a few years ago has had its legal chapter end with a sizeable settlement.

In February 2012, at a Chicago charter school, a student reportedly known as a bully, stabbed two students as they prepared to enter the school, in full view of staff and students. One student died shortly thereafter. The school, Infinity Chicago, was an "alternative school" providing services for students with learning disabilities or behavioral problems. Many of the students had been expelled or suspended from other Chicago Public Schools.

The deceased was reportedly attending the school for assistance with ADHD. His mother stated that, in the year her son attended the school, they had become so concerned about an alleged lack of discipline and risks of violence that they had planned to transfer to another school. The assailant had had a prior altercation with the victim, with both thereafter receiving counseling. The other student who was stabbed, but survived, was reportedly attempting to stop the attack.

The deceased student's mother alleged, among other things, that the school staff failed to prevent the attack and to intercede and to stop it when it began. Her complaint further alleged that the Defendants, including AMIKids, the Florida-based company that runs this school and 55 other schools nationally, did not follow their policies regarding bullying, and failed to provide adequate security and supervision.

In late August 2016, the matter settled for a payment of $2,900,000.


1The full measure provides "Traffic laws apply to persons riding bicycles. Every person riding a bicycle upon a highway shall be granted all of the rights, including but not limited to, rights under Article IX of this Chapter, and shall be subject to all of the duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this Code, except as to special regulations in this Article XV and those provisions of this Code which by their nature can have no application. 625 ILCS 5/11-1502.

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