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Landers v. School Dist. No. 203





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon. KENNETH J. JUEN, Judge, presiding.


This is an appeal by the defendant, School District No. 203 (school district), from a judgment of the circuit court of St. Clair County entered on a jury verdict in favor of plaintiff, Michelle Valentine Landers, in the amount of $77,000.

On November 30, 1967, the 15-year-old plaintiff Michelle Valentine, now Michelle Landers, received serious injuries to her neck while attempting to perform a tumbling maneuver known as a backward somersault during a physical education class at O'Fallon Senior High School where she was enrolled as a student. The instant cause was tried in the circuit court on the theory that the plaintiff's injuries were proximately caused by the wilful and wanton misconduct of one of the school district's physical education teachers.

• 1 The school district contends here that the trial court erred in denying defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint's allegations of wilful and wanton misconduct and that there was insufficient proof to support the finding of its guilt of wilful and wanton misconduct. We shall address only the issue as to the sufficiency of the evidence. The school district is precluded from raising the issue of the sufficiency of the complaint in this appeal since it failed to raise that matter in its post-trial motion. Chloupek v. Jordan (1977), 49 Ill. App.3d 809, 364 N.E.2d 650; Mangan v. F.C. Pilgrim & Co. (1975), 32 Ill. App.3d 563, 336 N.E.2d 374; Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 110, par. 68.1; ch. 110A, par. 366(b)(2)(iii).

In November of 1967, Michelle Valentine was one of approximately 40 students in a physical education class of O'Fallon Senior High School under the supervision of instructor Mary Ellen McElroy. At the time, Michelle was 5'6" tall and weighed around 180 pounds. About one week before the occurrence of the accident, Michelle's class ceased its outside activities and began a gymnastics program in the school's gymnasium. Michelle's class shared the gymnasium with another class under the supervision of physical education instructor Melberta Metias. That class also was engaged in a gymnastics program.

Part of the program involved the execution of various tumbling maneuvers, including the backward somersault. The backward somersault is done usually from a sitting position. The performer rolls backward with his knees bent downward toward the chest, supporting his weight first on the buttocks, then on the upper back. When the performer's head touches the ground, he reaches his hands back beside his head and pushes on the mat to transfer his weight to the arms as the motion continues in the same direction. The movement is completed when the performer's weight is supported on his feet.

As a means of familiarizing the students with how the maneuvers they were expected to execute were done, the instructors had them observe another student as she performed them. The plaintiff received no personal instruction or attention from McElroy with respect to the backward somersault prior to the accident.

According to Michelle, on the day before she was injured, she went to instructor McElroy's office after gym class. She told the instructor that she was afraid to do the backward somersault and that she did not know how to perform it. She told McElroy that she had done the maneuver six or seven times as a small child but that she had not done them properly. On those occasions, the activity had given her headaches and bothered her neck. She further informed the instructor that she was afraid to attempt the backward somersault because she was big and heavy. The instructor offered to help Michelle after school but was told that this was not possible since plaintiff rode the bus. The instructor then told Michelle to see her the next day. No discussion was had concerning Michelle's weight or whether she was strong enough to do the stunt.

During class the following day, November 30, 1967, plaintiff was tested on two other movements. McElroy then asked Michelle if she could do the backward somersault. After Michelle told her she could not, the instructor told her to practice it. Michelle reminded the instructor that she had said that she would help her but was told that the instructor could not help her then and that she should get another student doing the backward roll to assist her. At trial, McElroy testified that she could not remember having either of these conversations.

Michelle was still fearful that she could not do the maneuver. Nevertheless, she followed her instructor's suggestion and asked a fellow student named Cuffy, whom Michelle thought had completed the maneuver, to "spot" for her. All of the students had been instructed in one class period as to how to be spotters. It was Michelle's understanding that a spotter was merely someone to assist the performer by breaking her fall should she lose her balance. On the first attempt, Michelle's head went to one side. Since she knew such an execution was unacceptable, she attempted the maneuver again. When Michelle reached the point in the movement where all of her body was suspended above the neck, she was unable to push her weight over with her arms. She heard her neck snap.

At the hospital, Michelle's neck injury was diagnosed as a subluxation. This is an alteration of the normal alignment of the vertebral bodies. When conservative therapy failed to correct the condition, an orthopedic surgeon successfully performed a posterior cervical fusion, grafting a bone from the plaintiff's hip onto four vertebrae in the neck.

• 2 The applicable standard for imposition of liability in cases involving supervision of school activities is set forth in section 24-24 of the School Code which provides in pertinent part:

"In all matters relating to the discipline in and conduct of the schools and the school children, they [teachers and other educational employees] stand in the relation of parents and guardians to the pupils. This relationship shall extend to all activities connected with the school program and may be exercised at any time for the safety and supervision of the pupils in the absence of their parents or guardians." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1967, ch. 122, par. 24-24.)

This section confers the status of parent or guardian upon educators in matters relating to discipline and supervision of school activities, including physical education. Teachers thus are not subjected to any greater liability than parents who are liable to their children for wilful and wanton misconduct, but not for mere negligence. (Kobylanski v. Chicago Board of Education (1976), 63 Ill.2d 165, 347 N.E.2d 705.) Consequently, we must examine the facts of the present case to determine whether the jury's finding that the school district was guilty ...

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