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Harrison v. Hardin County Community Unit School District No. 1

May 09, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Hardin County. No. 96-L-10 Honorable David L. Underwood, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Maag

Connie Harrison (plaintiff) filed a civil action against defendants Joshua Davis, his grandfather Jimmy Davis, and Hardin County Community School District No. 1 for injuries she sustained in a motor vehicle accident. Claims against Joshua Davis, who was driving his grandfather's car when he lost control and struck plaintiff's vehicle, and his grandfather were settled. Plaintiff also sued Hardin County Community School District No. 1 (School District), alleging that school district personnel were willful and wanton in refusing Joshua Davis's request to leave school early due to inclement weather and deteriorating road conditions. The School District filed a motion for summary judgment claiming that it was entitled to immunity under section 2-201 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (the Act) (745 ILCS 10/2-201 (West 1994)). The trial court granted summary judgment and plaintiff now appeals.

The facts pertinent to this appeal follow. On December 8, 1995, Joshua Davis drove his grandfather's car to school. Joshua, who had recently celebrated his 16th birthday, was a student at Hardin County High School. Hardin County High School is owned and operated by the School District. On December 8, 1995, a mixture of freezing rain, sleet, and snow began falling in Hardin County.

Joshua Davis testified as follows: During his lunch period, about 11:40 a.m., Joshua approached his principal, Ron Brumley, and asked if he could leave school early. Joshua told Brumley that he wanted to leave before it started snowing heavily because "he didn't want to have a wreck." Brumley told Joshua that all of the students who drove would be dismissed early, at a certain time after lunch.

After the lunch period ended, Joshua went to his next class and asked his teacher if he could use the phone to call his parents to get permission to leave early. The teacher told Joshua to sit down and that school would be dismissed early. Joshua testified that school was dismissed at 1 p.m. that day. Accompanied by three other students, Joshua proceeded to drive his grandfather's car from school. Joshua passed his home and drove toward his girlfriend's house. En route, Joshua lost control of the vehicle, crossed the center line, and struck the front of plaintiff's vehicle.

At the time of this incident, Ron Brumley was the principal of Hardin County High School. Brumley testified that decisions regarding early dismissal are made by the superintendent of the School District. The principal does not make those decisions. Brumley testified that typically, once the superintendent notified him that school should be dismissed early, he would advise the principal of the elementary school, which shared the same building. Those students who drove to school would then be dismissed by Brumley at least 15 minutes earlier than those students who rode the bus. These early dismissal procedures had been approved by the superintendent.

Brumley testified that during the time he was principal, there was a procedure by which parents could call the school and request that their children be dismissed early. Brumley said that if an individual student requested to leave early due to inclement weather, the school usually required permission from the parent. The school allowed students to call home to ask their parents if they could leave school early. This practice was in place before Brumley became principal. Brumley testified that he might deny a student's request to call home if school was going to be dismissed shortly.

Brumley testified that he could not recall whether or not he spoke with Joshua about leaving early on December 8, 1995. He stated that the decision to dismiss an individual student was not a "policy decision," but an "individual call." He said that Josh was a student who "would ask to go home at 8 o'clock in the morning if he could." He also commented, "Anybody who has ever seen Josh drive in Hardin County would be critical of his parents for letting him drive, but I didn't give him a car and send him to school."

In plaintiff's complaint, she alleged that the accident and her injuries were "directly and proximately caused by the following willful and wanton acts on behalf of school district personnel:

a. Refused to allow Joshua Davis to leave school when it was safe to do so given the deteriorating weather conditions on local roads; b. Permitted Joshua Davis to leave school property in a motor vehicle after having been advised by the student that he had difficulty driving in inclement weather conditions; c. Failed to call Joshua Davis' grandparents, parents, and/or adult guardian to have him picked up from school."

In its motion for summary judgment, the School District claimed that it is absolutely immune from liability under section 2-201 of the Act. Plaintiff argued that this section provides immunity only if the act or omission by the employee is both the determination of policy and the exercise of discretion. Plaintiff claims that this decision did not involve the determination of policy.

In determining whether the circuit court properly granted a motion for summary judgment, we exercise de novo review. See White v. Village of Homewood, 285 Ill. App. 3d 496, 673 N.E.2d 1092 (1996). All evidence is construed favorably toward the nonmoving party and strictly against the moving party. White, 285 Ill. App. 3d at 501, 673 N.E.2d at 1095. A reversal is warranted if a material issue of fact or an inaccurate interpretation of the law exists. See White, 285 Ill. App. 3d at 501, 673 N.E.2d at 1095.

In this case, we must determine whether the trial court erred in finding that section 2-201 of the Act provided immunity for actions of the school district personnel. The doctrine of sovereign immunity was abolished by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1959. See Molitor v. Kaneland Commuity Unit District No. 302, 18 Ill. 2d 11, 163 N.E.2d 89 (1959). The 1970 Illinois Constitution also abolished the doctrine of sovereign immunity, except as the General Assembly may provide by law. Ill. Const. 1970, art. XIII, ยง4. Consequently, the Act (745 ILCS 10/1-101 et. seq. (West 1994)) controls whether and in ...

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