Park District Is Liable for Willful and Wanton Maintenance of Recreational Property

March 26, 2020

Under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act, park districts and their employees are not liable for an injury where liability is based on the existence of a condition of recreational property unless the district is guilty of willful and wanton conduct proximately causing the injury. “Willful and wanton” means a course of action that shows an utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others or their property. This standard requires allegations that the district knew about a danger and made a conscious choice not to protect against it — that is, the district had knowledge of prior injuries caused by the dangerous condition or intentionally removed a safety feature. The plaintiff bears a high burden of pleading sufficient facts showing willful and wanton conduct but, as shown recently in Torres v. Peoria Park District, 2020 IL App (3d) 190248, the burden is not insurmountable.

The Appellate Court in Torres reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit brought a couple who were injured when their hammock collapsed at a park district camping site. The hammock was attached to two vertical poles. The district knew the poles were not structurally sound to hold any appreciable weight and had implemented a general policy prohibiting erecting hammocks from any structure on park property. From these allegations, the Court inferred that the policy was enacted to keep patrons safe and included the vertical poles. Despite this policy, the district told the plaintiffs that the poles could be used for any camping or recreational purposes. By having a safety feature in place (the policy) and by telling the plaintiffs that the poles could be used for any purpose, the complaint stated a cause of action for willful and wanton conduct.

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