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Corbett v. County of Lake

Supreme Court of Illinois

November 30, 2017

KATHY CORBETT, Appellee,
v.
THE COUNTY OF LAKE et al. (City of Highland Park, Appellant).

          JUSTICE BURKE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Kilbride, Garman, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          BURKE, JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 At issue in this appeal is the meaning of section 3-107(b) of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Act) (745 ILCS 10/3-107(b) (West 2012)). The plaintiff filed a complaint at law in the circuit court of Lake County against the County of Lake (County) and the city of Highland Park (City) for personal injuries arising out of a bicycling accident on the Skokie Valley Bike Path. Defendants filed separate motions for summary judgment alleging various immunities under the Act. The circuit court allowed both motions and entered summary judgment in favor of defendants. Plaintiff appealed the judgment with respect to the City only.

         ¶ 2 The appellate court reversed the part of the circuit court's judgment pertaining to the City and remanded the cause to the circuit court. 2016 IL App (2d) 160035. The appellate court held that the circuit court erred in holding that the Skokie Valley Bike Path is a riding "trail" within the meaning of section 3-107(b) of the Act. Id. ¶ 33. Thus, the City could not assert absolute immunity under section 3-107(b). Id. We affirm the judgment of the appellate court but for different reasons.

         ¶ 3 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 On August 21, 2013, plaintiff, Kathy Corbett, was riding her bicycle with a group of other cyclists on the Skokie Valley Bike Path.[1] The group was riding south on a portion of the path running parallel to Skokie Valley Road (U.S. Route 41), between Park Avenue West and Old Deerfield Road, within the city of Highland Park. Plaintiff alleged that, prior to that date, defendants had been informed of a dangerous condition on that section of the path, in which "weeds and other vegetation were growing up through the asphalt ***, causing portions of the path to be broken, bumpy and elevated." Plaintiff alleged that she was thrown off her bicycle while riding over the defective portion of the path, causing her to sustain severe injuries. She alleged that her injuries were proximately caused by the willful and wanton acts or omissions of defendants.

         ¶ 5 According to documents in the record, at the time of plaintiff's accident the County was a party to a recreational lease agreement over the Skokie Valley Bike Path with Commonwealth Edison (ComEd). ComEd was the owner of the right-of-way encompassing the path, and the County was a tenant. Other documents in the record reveal that the County and the City were parties to a maintenance agreement, which provided that the City was responsible for routine maintenance on the portion of the path within the corporate limits of Highland Park. According to the agreement, "routine maintenance" included all activities necessary to keep the path in a reasonably safe and serviceable condition for bicycle and pedestrian traffic.

         ¶ 6 In its answer to plaintiff's complaint, the City raised various affirmative defenses, including immunity under section 3-107(b) of the Act. Defendants filed separate motions for summary judgment.[2] Relevant to this appeal, the City asserted in its motion that it was absolutely immune from liability, even for willful and wanton conduct, pursuant to section 3-107(b). That section provides, in part: "[n]either a local public entity nor a public employee is liable for an injury caused by a condition of: *** (b) Any hiking, riding, fishing or hunting trail." 745 ILCS 10/3-107(b) (West 2012). The City attached several exhibits in support of its motion. The exhibits included deposition transcripts of plaintiff and other witnesses.

         ¶ 7 Plaintiff testified in her deposition that, on the date of the accident, she was riding her bicycle with a group of people with whom she regularly rode. She had previously ridden on the particular stretch of path where the accident occurred. Plaintiff testified that section of the path was surrounded by shrubs and wild grasses. It was separated from residences and commercial businesses and set back from the highway. Plaintiff testified that the group was riding south on the path at a speed of 15 to 17 miles per hour as they approached a stop sign at Old Deerfield Road. The rider two places in front of her, Hasan Syed, hit a bump, lost control of his bicycle, and crashed. Plaintiff testified that the rider directly in front of her veered off, but she was not able to do so. Instead, she rode over Syed and flew off her bicycle, landing on the asphalt and sustaining multiple injuries.

         ¶ 8 Yves Roubaud testified in his deposition that he was riding with plaintiff and the others on August 21, 2013. He described the path as a bicycle path used by cyclists and walkers for recreational purposes. It had a yellow dividing line on it. Roubaud testified that the stretch of the path where the accident occurred was separated from residences and commercial businesses and set back from the highway. Roubaud stated that he was riding between Syed and plaintiff when Syed fell to the ground. Roubaud stated that he swerved to the left and rolled over Syed's leg but did not fall down. He then turned around and saw plaintiff lying on the ground, moaning in pain.

         ¶ 9 In his deposition, Syed testified that the path was used for recreational bicyclists riding at slow speeds and for walkers. He stated that the path was not intended to be used by professional riders but was "just for fun." Syed stated that the path had shrubs on both sides. Syed testified consistently with plaintiff and Roubaud regarding the events surrounding plaintiff's accident.

         ¶ 10 John Stevens testified in his deposition that he was riding with plaintiff and the others on August 21, 2013. He described the path as approximately six feet wide, paved with asphalt, and "lined by some type of growth most of the way, whether hedges or bushes." He stated that the path was not connected to any particular park. He also testified that the path was separated from commercial businesses and from traffic other than bicycles, walkers, and runners.

         ¶ 11 In her response to the City's motion for summary judgment, plaintiff argued that the path is not a "riding trail" under section 3-107(b) of the Act because it is paved and runs through a busy, developed commercial and industrial area of the city rather than a forest or mountainous region. Plaintiff attached her affidavit, in which she averred that she was familiar with the exact location on the path where the incident occurred, having ridden her bicycle through the area many times. She also attached photographs in support of her statements describing the path.

         ¶ 12 Plaintiff alleged the following facts. The path is not located in a wooded, natural scenic area. The path passes by a city park called Buckthorn Park. At the specific location where the accident occurred, there are commercial and industrial businesses, parking lots, and buildings abutting both sides of the path. Many of the businesses have cyclone fences that are adjacent to the path. Behind these fences are stacks of industrial materials such as pipes and cement blocks. There are some large bushes and grass but no trees present in the area where the incident occurred. Near the site of the accident, the path intersects with Old Deerfield Road, which is a busy city street with motor vehicles regularly crossing the path. As bicyclists approach the road from the north and south, there are stop signs for the bicyclists but no stop signs for the cars. The path is sandwiched between U.S. Route 41, which is less than one block to the east, and railroad tracks, which are less than one block to the west. There are large ComEd utility poles that run alongside the entire path, with multiple power lines overhead.

         ¶ 13 In its reply, the City did not dispute the facts averred by plaintiff. It argued, however, that the decisions of neighboring landowners to develop their property and the fact that the path is adjacent to a road did not defeat the immunity conferred by section 3-107(b) of the Act. The City argued that the nature of the path itself is determinative of whether it is a "riding trail" under section 3-107(b). The City contended that the undisputed evidence, i.e., that the path is surrounded by grass, shrubs, hedges, and bushes, shows that it is a "riding trail" as contemplated by section 3-107(b).

         ¶ 14 The circuit court allowed both defendants' motions and granted summary judgment in favor of defendants. On appeal, plaintiff did not challenge the judgment for the County. She argued that the grant of summary judgment for the City was error because the path was not a "riding trail, " as that term has been construed by the appellate court.

         ¶ 15 The appellate court reversed the circuit court's order granting summary judgment in favor of the City and remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings. 2016 IL App (2d) 160035, ¶¶ 33-34 (affirming in part and reversing in part the circuit court's judgment). The appellate court reviewed the relevant case law and found that the judicially accepted definition of the word "trail" is " 'a "marked path through a forest or mountainous region." ' " Id. ¶¶ 23, 29 (quoting Brown v. Cook County Forest Preserve, 284 Ill.App.3d 1098, 1101 (1996), quoting Webster's Third New International Dictionary 2423 (1981)). The court concluded that the presence of industrial and residential development completely surrounding the path defeated the City's argument that it runs through a forest or mountainous region. 2016 IL App (2d) 160035, ¶¶ 29-30. Therefore, the immunity provided by section 3-107(b) did not apply. Id.

         ¶ 16 This court allowed the City's petition for leave to appeal pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 315. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315(a) (eff. Mar. 15, 2016). We also allowed the Park District Risk Management ...


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