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Ostergren v. Forest Preserve District





Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Third District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Will County, the Hon. Charles P. Connor, JUSTICE CLARK DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied November 30, 1984.

On February 11, 1981, plaintiff, Richard Ostergren, was driving a snowmobile in the Sauk Trail Forest Preserve when the vehicle struck a trench. The plaintiff sustained a fractured cervical vertebra in the accident and filed suit in the circuit court of Will County on September 25, 1981. The plaintiff alleged that the negligence of the defendants, the Forest Preserve District of Will County, the Forest Preserve Board of Will County and the County of Will, was the proximate cause of his injuries. The trial court granted the County of Will's motion for summary judgment, and the action continued against the remaining defendants. On November 18, 1982, the trial court granted the forest preserve's motion to dismiss, holding that the plaintiff's cause of action was barred by the provisions of the Snowmobile Registration and Safety Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 95 1/2, par. 605-1(I)). The plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed, holding section 5-1(I) unconstitutional because it granted absolute tort immunity to the forest preserve (118 Ill. App.3d 319, 323). We granted the forest preserve's petition for leave to appeal as a matter of right (87 Ill.2d R. 317), and we now reverse the decision of the appellate court and affirm the decision of the trial court.

Section 5-1(I) provides, in pertinent part:

"An owner, lessee, or occupant of premises owes no duty to keep the premises safe for entry or use by others for snowmobiling, or to give warning of any unsafe condition or use of or structure or activity on such premises. This subsection does not apply where permission to snowmobile is given for a valuable consideration other than to this State, any political subdivision or municipality thereof, or any landowner who is paid with funds from the Snowmobile Trial Establishment Fund." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 95 1/2, par. 605-1(I).

Section 5-1(I) was amended on January 5, 1984, to add the following language:

"Nothing in this section limits in any way liability which otherwise exists for willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity." 1983 Ill. Laws 7115.

We will confine our discussion to a single issue: whether section 5-1(I) violates the United States Constitution or the Illinois Constitution. The plaintiff argues that section 5-1(I) extinguishes his common law right of action to recover damages for his personal injuries. The forest preserve maintains that section 5-1(I) is a reasonable exercise of legislative power that should not be disturbed by this court.

The plaintiff's constitutional challenge is grounded in the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution (U.S. Const., amend. XIV) and article I, section 2 of the Illinois Constitution (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, sec. 2) (constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection). Limitations on governmental liability in snowmobile accidents are a fairly recent phenomenon. (See Shockey v. Shields (1975), 272 Or. 226, 536 P.2d 424; Watson v. Zanotti Motor Co. (1971), 219 Pa. Super. 96, 280 A.2d 670; see also Annot., 42 A.L.R.3d 1422 (1972).) Since section 5-1(I) has never been reviewed by this court, the plaintiff bases his argument on related constitutional concepts. In Clarke v. Storchak (1943), 384 Ill. 564, this court upheld the Illinois guest statute (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1941, ch. 95 1/2, par. 58a) against a constitutional challenge. The guest statute limited gratuitous automobile passengers in recovering from their drivers after an auto accident. The plaintiff argues that section 5-1(I), while somewhat analogous to the guest statute, because both statutes restrict plaintiffs' latitude in bringing personal injury actions, is different than the guest statute because section 5-1(I) "constitutes a deprivation of a remedy because under the facts of this case, no other remedy exists nor did the legislature substitute a remedy for that which was taken away by the enactment of this Section."

We have detected few cases from other jurisdictions with sufficient factual similarity to the case at bar. As we said earlier, snowmobile litigation is a relatively recent phenomenon in our courts. However, the New Mexico Court of Appeals recently upheld a similar statute against a constitutional challenge. In Vandolsen v. Constructors Inc. (N.M. Ct. App. 1984), 678 P.2d 1184, the plaintiff was injured when he drove a "dirt bike" into an excavation cut across a private road. The trial court granted defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to a State statute limiting liability for property owners in such accidents. The court noted:

"The Legislature has enacted provisions almost identical to those in Section 66-3-1013(A) with respect to the operation of snowmobiles on private lands and landowner liability. NMSA 1978 sec. 66-9-10(A). Section 66-9-10(A) is part of the "Snowmobile Act" sec. 66-9-1 et seq., which is also part of the "Motor Vehicle Code." It is not unreasonable for the legislature to identify snowmobiles and dirt bikes as presenting similarly acute problems for landowners that other vehicles have not caused." (N.M. Ct. App. 1984), 678 P.2d 1184, 1189.

We believe that section 5-1(I) is a reasonable exercise of the State's police power and does not contravene plaintiff's right to due process and equal protection. As this court noted in Clarke:

"Legislation under the police power of the State is not confined to public health, safety or morality, but may extend to matters in the interest of the public welfare or convenience. (State v. Bassett, 100 Conn. 430, 123 A. 842, 37 A.L.R. 131.) A large discretion is necessarily vested in the legislature to determine not only what the interests of public convenience and welfare require, but what measures are necessary to secure such interest. (Cotter v. Stockel, 97 Conn. 239, 116 A. 248; Silver v. Silver, 108 Conn. 371, 143 A. 240.) It is, of course, true that the statute here imposes upon the owner or operator of a motor vehicle a different degree of care toward a guest than he was required at common law to exercise toward a passenger who pays for his transportation. Such a distinction between the duty imposed in the case of the gratuitous performance of services and the performance of them for hire is to be found running through many fields of law." Clarke v. Storchak (1944), 384 Ill. 564, 577.

In the case at bar, the legislature has implemented a different standard of care for tort liability in snowmobile accidents. This distinction is justified due to the inherent danger of snowmobile operation in private lots, public parks and forest preserves. (See Comment, Snowmobiles — A Legislative Program, 1972 Wis. L. Rev. 477; Comment, Governmental Immunity in Illinois: The Molitor Decision and the Legislative Reaction, 54 Nw. U.L. Rev. 588 (1959).) We cannot detect any basis for the plaintiff's argument that section 5-1(I) is an unconstitutional exercise of the State's police power. We also note that a related section of the Snowmobile Registration and Safety Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1979, ch. 95 1/2, par. 605-2) has withstood a constitutional challenge in our appellate court. (People v. Meyer (1980), 88 Ill. App.3d 965.) In Meyer, the court upheld section 5-2's prohibition of snowmobile operation on a public highway against plaintiff's due process challenge. 88 Ill. App.3d 965, 966.

The plaintiff further argues that section 5-1(I) contravenes article I, section 12, of the Illinois Constitution, ...

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