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Wright-Young v. Chicago State University

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Sixth Division

September 27, 2019

PAMELA WRIGHT-YOUNG, Independent Administrator of the Estate of Tyrone Lawson, Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellee,
v.
CHICAGO STATE UNIVERSITY; RONNIE WATSON, Individually and as Chief of Police at Chicago State University; and THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, Defendants(The Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Defendant-Appellant).

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 14 L 488 Honorable Thomas J. Lipscomb, Judge Presiding.

          Joshua G. Vincent, Steven M. Puiszis, and Carson R. Griffis, of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, of Chicago, for appellant.

          Michael W. Rathsack, Martin S. Dolan, Karen Munoz, and John M. Carmody, of Chicago, for appellee.

          PRESIDING JUSTICE MIKVA delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Pierce and Walker concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          MIKVA PRESIDING JUSTICE.

         ¶ 1 Tyrone Lawson, the 17-year-old son of plaintiff Pamela Wright-Young, was fatally shot outside a high school basketball game. Ms. Wright-Young, as the administrator of her son's estate, brought this wrongful death and survival action against the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (Board) and the chief of police and student services for Chicago State University (CSU), whose Jones Convocation Center (JCC arena) was the venue where the basketball game was held. Throughout the pendency of the case, the trial court rejected various statutory immunities asserted by the Board. The case was tried and a jury-concluding that the Board was liable but Mr. Watson was not-awarded Ms. Wright-Young damages in the amount of $3.5 million. The Board now appeals.

         ¶ 2 We conclude that the trial court erroneously rejected the Board's claim of absolute immunity with respect to most of the theories of liability presented at trial, as those theories all related to the Board's failure to provide adequate police protection services. Absolute immunity did not apply, however, to Ms. Wright-Young's theory that the Board failed to communicate prior acts of violence at Board-sponsored sporting events to CSU, which was directly responsible for the parking lot where Tyrone was killed. Because this remaining claim is not defeated by any of the Board's other arguments, we affirm the jury's verdict under the general verdict rule.

         ¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 A. Ms. Wright-Young's Allegations

         ¶ 5 In her complaint, Ms. Wright-Young alleged that the basketball game held on January 16, 2013, between Morgan Park High School (Morgan Park) and Simeon High School (Simeon) was a "highly publicized" game between two "bitter rivals" that was expected to be especially well-attended because Simeon's star player was considered a top college recruit. Due to a capacity crowd, a number of individuals, including Ms. Wright-Young's son Tyrone, were unable to purchase tickets and congregated outside of the arena during the game.

         ¶ 6 Ms. Wright-Young alleged that "prior known violence between the rival schools, " including "an incident involving a stabbing at a football game *** in September of 2012 where three students were injured, " created a "strong foreseeability of gang violence underpinning the event." According to Ms. Wright-Young, the Board chose CSU as a neutral location to host the game, "advertised and invited students from both [high schools], among others, and created the illusion they would be providing adequate security for all invitees."

         ¶ 7 Ms. Wright-Young further alleged that immediately following the game there was "a panic situation, " with various fights breaking out as spectators began to spill out into the front and back parking lots of the JCC arena. According to Ms. Wright-Young, during this chaos two men approached Tyrone and some friends he was standing with and opened fire. Tyrone attempted to flee but was shot multiple times and died of his injuries. The two men were arrested and charged with first degree murder.

         ¶ 8 Ms. Wright-Young brought a variety of claims against the Board and against Mr. Watson, alleging various actions that she claimed contributed to her son's murder.

         ¶ 9 B. The Board's Immunity Arguments

         ¶ 10 The Board moved to dismiss the claims against it on the basis that it was immune from suit under section 4-102 of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Tort Immunity Act or Act) (745 ILCS 10/4-102 (West 2012)), which provides absolute immunity for a local public entity's failure to provide adequate police protection services. The trial court at first denied the motion, but on reconsideration granted it in part, striking those of Ms. Wright-Young's allegations the court felt clearly concerned the failure to provide police protection services.

         ¶ 11 The Board continued to assert section 4-102 immunity-along with a number of other statutory immunities-in its affirmative defenses. It later moved for summary judgment under section 4-102 as well as section 2-201 (id. § 2-201 (immunity for discretionary policy decisions)). Although the trial court denied the Board's motion for summary judgment "for the reasons stated in the record, " a transcript of the hearing on the motion does not appear in the record.

         ¶ 12 The Board raised its immunity defenses again at trial, when it moved for a directed verdict at the close of Ms. Wright-Young's case. Counsel for the Board briefly outlined, this time for a new judge, its prior arguments in favor of a finding that it was immune under sections 4-102 (for failures to provide adequate police protection services), 2-201 (for discretionary policy decisions), and 2-107 and 2-210 of the Act (id. §§ 2-107, 2-210 (for the provision of information)). In denying the motion, the trial court provided only the following explanation:

"THE COURT: Okay. All right.
As far as the [Board]'s motion for directed verdict, I'll deny it.
And I think there's an issue of assumption of-not assumption-voluntary undertaking or assumption of duty that may apply to those immunities proffered by the Chicago Public Schools. In other words, I think it may be contrary to those immunities that are listed there."

         ¶ 13 The Board raised its immunity arguments one final time in its posttrial motion, but that motion was also denied.

         ¶ 14 C. The Evidence at Trial

         ¶ 15 A six-day jury trial was held in this case in November 2017. The jury heard from, among others, Tyrone's parents, current and former employees of the Board and CSU, and the parties' respective experts.

         ¶ 16 1. Board Officials

         ¶ 17 The jury was shown a redacted September 14, 2012, letter that Everett Edwards, the principal of Morgan Park High School, sent to parents whose students attended the school. That letter began by referencing an "unfortunate event that took place on Friday, September 7, 2012, during the Morgan Park v. Simeon football game, " during which "a disturbance took place in the stands" and "[m]ost fans took off running for an exit, " but during which, "[t]hankfully, only three students were injured." The letter then assured parents that the local school council (LCL) had met to discuss next steps they could take "to insure the safety of [their] students at all school-sponsored events." Principal Edwards told parents "[t]he Administration reached out to [Chicago Public Schools] Sports Administration" and "[t]hey have assured us that modifications to security plans have been made in order to maintain a safe environment during sporting events."

         ¶ 18 Mr. Edwards testified that, when he sent this letter, he had no actual knowledge regarding what changes, if any, had been made to the Board's security plans. When asked why he sent the letter, Mr. Edwards explained:

"The purpose of the letter was to inform parents of the incident that had occurred previously. It was also designed to let them know we were calling upon our all [sic] resources to keep their children safe. There are no guarantees, but we wanted to make sure that our parents knew that we were as much on the situation as we could be."

         ¶ 19 Calvin Davis, the Board's former director of sports administration and facilities, testified that his duties included coordinating Board-sponsored events at outside venues like the JCC arena. Mr. Davis was confident that under the Facilities Usage Agreement (venue agreement) the Board entered into with CSU for the game, the Board was only responsible for the security of fans while they were inside the arena. Mr. Davis's testimony echoed the Board's position throughout this case that, under the venue agreement, there was a clearly defined division of labor: the Board was responsible for security inside the arena, and CSU was responsible for security outside the arena. Mr. Davis testified that, in keeping with this understanding, the Board's security plan only covered the entrance to the facility and the facility interior. When asked if parents were told that the Board had no responsibility for the safety of students as they entered and exited the arena, Davis said "[n]o, I don't believe parents [were] being told that." If they were, he said, that information would come from the individual schools, as the athletic department did not communicate directly with parents.

         ¶ 20 Mr. Davis also testified that for 10 years the Board had used the same basic security plan for events at off-site venues, whether those events were basketball games, wrestling matches, or cheerleading competitions. Although "slight modifications" may have been made to the plan from time to time, Mr. Davis could not identify any specific modifications that were made in advance of the Morgan Park-Simeon basketball game. He acknowledged that Morgan Park's principal, Everett Edwards, had sent a letter to parents several months before the game telling them that changes had been made to the security plan based on an incident at a football game between the two schools, but stated "I couldn't tell you what specific modifications were made, if any, to the plan."

         ¶ 21 Mr. Davis did not recall the Board providing any information to CSU about a history of violence at sporting events between Morgan Park and Simeon before the venue agreement was signed. In his opinion, that was not the sort of information that would be exchanged "[w]ith the contract." Rather, when the "[respective] security forces talked, *** they would mention it and maybe plan." Mr. Davis stated "[i]f there was something, I'm sure as they planned it would be discussed." Mr. Davis was "[v]aguely" familiar with Ronnie Watson, CSU's chief of police, having met him some years earlier in connection with a different event, but had no discussions with him prior to the Morgan Park-Simeon basketball game.

         ¶ 22 Mr. Davis was shown a printout of an e-mail he wrote on January 18, 2013, just two days after the basketball game, to school principals and athletic directors, in which everything but the first line had been redacted. That line read: "As a result of numerous acts of violence outside of basketball contests in the past two weeks ***." Mr. Davis could not remember what events he had been referring to or whether parents had been made aware of those events. He downplayed the phrase "numerous acts of violence, " explaining that Tyrone's shooting, "being such a tragic incident, *** probably heightened *** the need for security." But in the two weeks prior to the Morgan Park-Simeon game, Mr. Davis insisted nothing more serious than a "fight here or a scuffle there" had occurred.

         ¶ 23 Mr. Davis had himself attended the Morgan Park-Simeon game on January 16, 2013. Although the game was an important one, it was not unusual for Chicago Public School (CPS) basketball games to be played at the JCC arena. He could not recall seeing any security in the parking lot outside the arena. When the game was over, Mr. Davis witnessed a scuffle in the handshake line but said the incident was "immediately contained." People then left the arena in an orderly fashion, and he "didn't sense anything out of the ordinary." When shown an e-mail he wrote the day after the game, in which he described a "large commotion on the court" that "could have been much worse, " Mr. Davis again downplayed his prior statements, explaining that the commotion was short-lived and involved only the players and coaches.

         ¶ 24 Mr. Davis characterized the level of security at the Morgan Park-Simeon basketball game as "very high." In addition to CSU officers and off-duty Chicago police officers hired for the evening, the Board had a trained special event staff of around 50 individuals, all wearing bright gold shirts or jackets, posted at entrances and exits, washrooms, concession stands, and throughout the stands. Screening at the door was done by a combination of CPS security staff and Chicago police. Everyone entering went through an X-ray machine or hand wands.

         ¶ 25 2. Tyrone's Parents

         ¶ 26 Ms. Wright-Young testified that Tyrone was her only child and she kept a close watch over him. She knew who his friends were and would often drop the boys off and pick them back up from various events. If she had any concerns about her son's safety at a particular event, she would not let him go.

         ¶ 27 Ms. Wright-Young had been alarmed when she picked Tyrone up from the September 2012 Morgan Park-Simeon football game referenced in Principal Edwards's letter and saw police cars. Although Tyrone reassured her both that there had been no gunshots, only people setting off firecrackers, and that rumors of a stabbing were not true, she thought he might be minimizing what happened so that she would not prohibit him from going to future sporting events.

         ¶ 28 Tyrone's stepfather, Gregory Young, also recalled the commotion after the football game. Tyrone told him that there was "a fight that broke off into the stands, *** people just started running everywhere, " and "[s]omebody with a screwdriver or something stabbed someone else." After that incident, Mr. Young said that he and Ms. Wright-Young "weren't going to let [Tyrone] be going to too many functions because it wasn't safe." Mr. Young believed that the intense rivalry between the two schools had created "an unsafe environment."

         ¶ 29 A week later, Tyrone's parents received the letter from Principal Edwards explaining what had happened at the football game, which included what Ms. Wright-Young viewed as "a promise that they were going to do some things [so] that it wouldn't happen again." The letter "stood out to [her]" because it mentioned the local school council, or LSC. She herself had been president of the LSC at Tyrone's elementary school for six years, and in her experience, the LSC "basically runs a school." Her understanding of the letter was that the incident at the football game had been discussed by the LSC and "something did take place to make sure this [type of incident] was not going to happen again." According to Ms. Wright-Young, this "wiped out a lot of [her] concerns" and made her feel comfortable with Tyrone attending Board-sponsored sporting events again.

         ¶ 30 On the afternoon of January 16, 2013, Tyrone asked his parents if he could attend the Morgan Park-Simeon basketball game that evening. Although they were concerned because it was a school night, they understood it was an important game between two top-ranked schools and they finally relented. For Ms. Wright-Young, Principal Edwards's letter played a role in that decision. She told the jury "[t]hat letter really made me feel like it was okay for Tyrone to go to that game."

         ¶ 31 Mr. Young also remembered reading the letter, which he said made him feel "a little bit more at ease" with letting Tyrone attend another sporting event. He and Ms. Wright-Young discussed the matter and "figured that [because the game would be at] a college campus *** it should be a safe environment." As a state facility with ...


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