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01/18/96 DONNELL PALMER ET AL. v. MT. VERNON

January 18, 1996

DONNELL PALMER ET AL., APPELLEES,
v.
MT. VERNON TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT 201, APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fifth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Jefferson County, the Hon. George W. Timberlake, Judge, presiding.

Rehearing Denied April 1, 1996.

The Honorable Justice McMORROW delivered the opinion of the court: Justice Harrison took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mcmorrow

The Honorable Justice McMORROW delivered the opinion of the court:

In this appeal, we consider the scope of a school district's liability for injuries sustained by a student during a school-sponsored basketball game. In February 1986, Donnell Palmer (hereafter Donnell), then a senior at Mt. Vernon Township High School, was engaged in a practice session while a member of the school's varsity basketball team. During the practice, Donnell was struck in the eye by another player. He suffered substantial injury from the incident, and eventually lost all vision in the injured eye. Donnell and his mother, Suzanne Palmer, filed suit in the circuit court of Jefferson County against the Mt. Vernon Township High School District (hereafter the school district) alleging that the school district breached, inter alia, its duty to warn students of the dangers of basketball and its duty to allow students to wear protective gear, such as eye wear, during athletic activities such as basketball.

Following a trial, the jury returned a verdict for the school district. However, the appellate court reversed judgment for the district and remanded the matter for a new trial. (269 Ill. App. 3d 1056.) The appellate court reasoned that certain jury instructions given by the trial court failed to adequately instruct the jury regarding the school district's duty to warn students about wearing protective gear, and the district's duty to allow students to furnish their own protective safety equipment. We granted the school district's petition for leave to appeal (145 Ill. 2d R. 315) and reverse the appellate court's decision.

Background

Donnell testified at trial that he first thought of wearing goggles during basketball activities a few years before he was injured. He knew that both professional basketball players and some members of opposing high school basketball teams wore protective eye wear during basketball games.

Donnell testified that an incident in December 1985 confirmed his belief that he should wear protective eye gear during basketball activities. That incident arose during a high school basketball tournament in which Donnell participated. During the tournament, Donnell was hit on the cheekbone by the elbow of an opposing player. However, he was not seriously injured on this occasion.

Donnell also stated that a few weeks later, one of his teammates, Eric Robinson, had protective eye wear called "Rec-Specs" during a basketball practice. Donnell borrowed the eye gear from Robinson and wore them during practice, in order to test the feel of the goggles. He stated that he had been wearing the goggles for 5 to 10 minutes during the practice when his coach, Lee Emery, told him to take them off before he hurt another player. Robinson's testimony confirmed that Donnell wore the eye gear for approximately a half hour and was then told by coach Emery to remove them. Robinson stated that the coach said the goggles should be removed because they were a distraction.

After this incident, Donnell presumed that his coach would not allow him to wear protective eye gear. At a basketball practice session approximately a month later, on February 4, 1986, Donnell was poked in the left eye by another player's finger. He sustained substantial eye injury as a result of the incident and eventually lost all sight in his eye.

Donnell stated that neither his coach nor any other high school or district official told him that he could provide his own eye wear during basketball activities. Donnell also stated that he had not seen any of his teammates use protective eye gear during games or practices. He further testified that he never informed his basketball coach, or any other official from the high school or the school district, that he feared an eye injury during basketball games or practice and therefore wanted to wear protective eye gear.

Coach Emery testified that he could not recall any basketball practice or session in the 1985-86 season in which Donnell wore protective eye gear. He also did not recall any practice session in January 1986 in which Donnell wore "Rec-Specs." One of Donnell's teammates, Tommy Hayes, similarly testified that he did not recall any instance when Donnell wore protective eye gear to practice, nor any incident where coach Emery told Donnell or any other player not to wear protective eye gear. Coach Jim Woodward, an assistant basketball coach during the 1985-86 season who was present at the January practice session, also testified that he never saw Donnell wearing goggles during a basketball game or practice, and that he never heard coach Emery tell Donnell to remove goggles during a basketball practice.

Coach Emery and coach Woodward testified that they were not aware of any Illinois high school that furnished protective eye wear to its basketball players. Coach Emery stated that eye injuries were rare, although he had witnessed a few during his coaching career. The coach testified that Mt. Vernon Township High School basketball games during the 1985-86 season were governed by the official rules published by the National Federation of State High School Associations, and that these rules did not require the use of protective eye wear. The rules also do not specifically prohibit the use of protective eye wear, unless the referee judges such equipment to be a danger to any of the players. Coach Emery testified ...


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