The basic Illinois statute of limitations for personal injury actions is two years. But the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/1-101) provides that for actions against a “local public entity,” the limitations period is one year.

In the closing days of its November term, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide O’Toole v. The Chicago Zoological Society, which poses the question: is a zoo a “local public entity”?

O’Toole arises from a slip-and-fall at the zoo, in which the plaintiff sustained severe personal injuries. The defendant moved to dismiss on the grounds that the complaint was time-barred: it was filed nearly two years after the accident, long after the one-year statute under the Tort Immunity Act would have run, if it applied. The Circuit Court granted the motion to dismiss.

The First District, Division 4 unanimously reversed. The court notes that the term “local public entity” is broadly defined by the Tort Immunity Act to include “any not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of conducting public business.” Cases interpreting this phrase have required that “public business” be limited to activity that benefits the whole community, without restriction. The Supreme Court has held that a corporation does not conduct public business absent proof of local government control.

The court concluded that the Zoological Society was not engaged in conducting public business.  Although the Cook County Forest Preserve District owns the land on which the defendant’s zoo sits, it does not own the zoo itself or all of the property involved in operating it. More than 90% of the defendant zoo’s trustees and governing members were not employed by the District. Less than half the defendant’s funding was derived from District funds, and the District had no right to approve the defendant’s expenditures of that half of the budget. Furthermore, the defendant’s employees were neither entitled to a State pension or workers compensation; instead, the defendant was subject to OSHA guidelines. For all these reasons, although it conceded that a successful zoo was in the public interest, the court found that the defendant was not “conducting public business” sufficiently to be governed by the one-year statute of limitations.

We expect O’Toole to be decided in eight to ten months.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Tambako the Jaguar (no changes).