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Murphy v. The Springfield Park District

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fourth District

October 4, 2019

JOHN E. MURPHY, Plaintiff-Appellant,
THE SPRINGFIELD PARK DISTRICT, a Municipal Corporation, and DEREK HARMS, Defendants-Appellees.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Sangamon County No. 16L178 Honorable John M. Madonia, Judge Presiding.

          JUSTICE STEIGMANN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices DeArmond and Harris concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 In January 2017, plaintiff, John E. Murphy, filed an amended complaint against defendants, the Springfield Park District and Derek Harms, the executive director of the Springfield Park District (collectively, the Park District), alleging that they willfully and wantonly permitted a dangerous condition to exist on one of the Park District's bike paths that caused a serious injury to Murphy. Specifically, Murphy alleged that, in August 2015, he was riding his bike on a bike path when he struck a round, metal collar designed to hold a steel bollard, which was in the middle of the path. Murphy claimed the Park District had removed or permitted the removal of the bollard, causing the dangerous condition.

         ¶ 2 In April 2018, the Park District filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argued the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Act) (745 ILCS 10/1-101 et seq. (West 2014)) barred liability for the action. The Park District contended there was no genuine issue of material fact that (1) it did not have actual or constructive notice of an unsafe condition (see id. § 3-102(a)) and (2) it did not engage in willful or wanton conduct (see id. § 3-106). Murphy filed a response in which he argued the case should be presented to a jury. In September 2018, the trial court agreed with both of the Park District's arguments and entered summary judgment in its favor.

         ¶ 3 Murphy appeals, arguing the trial court erred by entering summary judgment in favor of the Park District. We disagree and affirm.

         ¶ 4 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 5 A. Murphy's Claims

         ¶ 6 In January 2017, Murphy filed an amended complaint against the Park District. The complaint alleged that, in August 2015, Murphy was riding his bicycle on the "Interurban Trail," a bike path on and along an abandoned railroad line maintained by the Park District that runs through parts of Springfield, Illinois, and the surrounding area. At around 4 p.m., Murphy rode under a railroad trestle and struck a hidden obstruction in the path. Murphy was thrown from his bike and sustained a concussion, broken bones, and permanent injuries.

         ¶ 7 The complaint also alleged that the Park District "installed and maintained traffic obstruction bollards" (essentially steel posts) at the location of the accident. One bollard had been removed, "leaving a several inch obstruction in the center of the bike trail." It was this obstruction that Murphy hit.

         ¶ 8 Murphy alleged the Park District engaged in willful and wanton conduct by, among other things, (1) intentionally removing or permitting the removal of the bollard and (2) knowing of and permitting "the creation of the unreasonably dangerous condition of the bollard flange in conscious disregard for the safety of Plaintiff." Count II of the complaint alleged essentially the same willful and wanton conduct against Derek Harms, the executive director of the Park District who was responsible for maintenance of the trail.

         ¶ 9 B. The Park District's Motion for Summary Judgment

         ¶ 10 In April 2018, the Park District filed a motion for summary judgment in which it argued various provisions of the Act barred liability for the action. Relevant to this appeal, the Park District first contended that there was no genuine issue of material fact that it did not have actual or constructive notice of a dangerous condition (the missing bollard) in reasonably adequate time prior to Murphy's accident. See id. § 3-102(a). Second, section 3-106 of the Act provides that, if an injury occurs because of a condition on recreational property, a public entity or its employee is liable only if it engaged in willful and wanton conduct. Id. § 3-106. The Park District asserted that Murphy could not meet the willful and wanton standard.

         ¶ 111. The Undisputed Material Facts

         ¶ 12 In support of its motion, the Park District attached the depositions of Murphy and Park District employees Jason Graham, Nicholas Blasko, Derek Harms, and Elliott McKinley. We note that, in his response, Murphy relied upon the same depositions and did not provide any additional depositions or affidavits.

         ¶ 13 a. Murphy's Deposition

         ¶ 14 Murphy testified that he rode his bike on the Interurban Trail on August 24, 2015. At about 3:15 p.m., Murphy rode north under the railroad trestle, where the accident would later occur, and did not notice anything was amiss. He had ridden the trail before and was aware that there were three steel bollards near the railroad trestle. About 45 minutes later, when Murphy was returning south, he passed under the same railroad trestle and suddenly saw the steel collar that holds the bollard in place. Because the collar was 2 to 3 inches in front of his tire and Murphy was travelling about 10 miles per hour, he could not avoid the collar.

         ¶ 15 Murphy testified he struck the collar and was thrown from his bike. The next thing he remembered was waking up in the emergency room with a concussion, a broken nose, and two broken teeth. He also suffered lacerations on his lips, one of which resulted in permanent nerve damage and numbness to the left side of his mouth.

         ¶ 16 Murphy testified that he had ridden the trail for years and had never noticed a bollard being down. He was also unaware of any accidents involving a missing bollard. Murphy admitted that he did not know how long the bollard that caused his accident had been removed or who removed it. Murphy agreed the bollard could have been removed just minutes before the accident.

         ¶ 17 Murphy stated he recalled that, when he initially rode under the trestle heading north, the grass on both sides of the trail had been mowed and he heard machinery, so he thought the Park District could have been mowing and removed the bollard. However, Murphy agreed (1) he never saw a work crew, (2) he did not know if the machinery he heard was a lawn mower, and (3) he did not know what machinery was being used or who was using it. Accordingly, Murphy agreed that "it would be a matter of guess and speculation to say that a work crew member had removed the bollard and the location of [his] accident."

         ¶ 18 b. Jason Graham

         ¶ 19 Jason Graham testified he was the assistant superintendent of park maintenance at the time of the accident and had worked for the Park District since 2010. Graham oversaw about 35 employees, whom he split up into five-man maintenance crews with each assigned to a geographic area. Graham would assign them daily tasks including mowing, checking trails to make sure they are clear, and making repairs.

         ¶ 20 Graham stated there were 10 to 11 bollards on the Interurban Trail, usually in groups of 3 with the middle bollard being removable. The bollards were designed to prevent motor vehicles from accessing the trail. Graham explained a removable bollard is held in place by a steel collar and a large metal pin with a padlock on it. The pin has two holes, one on each end, and locks are placed on each side to secure the pin. Graham stated the Park District uses one lock and a different entity, such as the county or city, places the other lock. The removable bollard sits inside the collar, which is "several inches" high. The bollards also have steel handles to assist with removal and weigh about 15 pounds.

         ¶ 21 Graham further testified that occasionally maintenance crews need to remove a bollard to get a piece of equipment on to the trail. They are taught to remove the bollard, drive the vehicle through, and then immediately replace the bollard. Graham had never heard of or seen anyone not follow this procedure. To his knowledge, a Park District employee did not remove the bollard on the day in question, and he was never even told it was missing.

         ¶ 22 Graham testified that, for a busy time such as August, his crews would be out on the trail several times a week. They are trained to look for missing bollards and to make sure bollards have working pins and locks. If a pin was missing, the crew often had a replacement on the truck, or they would get one fabricated as soon as possible, usually "in an hour or two," but they "would never let a pin sit out of it for three or four days." Graham estimated that crews encountered a bollard that had been removed and not put back between 1 and 10 times a year. He estimated cut locks were found three to five times per year, and the same was likely true for pins. Crews were trained to immediately locate, replace, and secure a missing bollard. Graham had never heard a complaint about the bollards or of an accident involving the bollards. Graham ...

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