14460248501_65f2c812cf_zThe Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act provides a one-year statute of limitations for actions against “local public entities.”

So is the Brookfield Zoo – legally known as the Chicago Zoological Society – such an entity? In O’Toole v. The Chicago Zoological Society, a unanimous Illinois Supreme Court held, in an opinion by Justice Theis, that the answer was “no.” Our summary of the underlying facts and lower court opinions in O’Toole is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.

O’Toole began in 2010 when the plaintiff tripped and fell on a paved pathway at the Zoo. Almost two years later, the plaintiff filed a one-count negligence complaint. The defendant moved to dismiss, arguing that the one-year statute of limitations applied rather than the two-year statute in Section 13-202 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/13-202.) The Circuit Court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, but the Appellate Court reversed.

The Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s decision. According to the statute, a “local public entity” includes various public and semi-public entities, “as well as any not-for-profit corporation organized for the purpose of conducting public business.” 745 ILCS 10/1-206. No factor was more important in determining whether an entity was conducting “public business” than local governmental control. If the entity were subject to government-only statutes such as the Open Meetings Act or the Freedom of Information Act, that would suggest local governmental control. Evidence that officers of a government entity controlled the corporation would also be relevant. The Court concluded that its case law directly links section 1-205 of the Act, which includes the term “public business,” to section 1-101.1 of the Act, which states that the overarching purpose of the Tort Immunity Act is to shield local public entities and their employees from liability arising out of “the operation of government.”

The Court noted that the Cook County Forest Preserve District maintained control of the real property under the zoo, and the defendant and the District shared control over the other property of the zoo. The District was allowed to access the zoo for supervisory purposes, and the defendant couldn’t sell buildings, enclosures, trees or animals without the District’s approval. However, the defendant had day-to-day management of the zoo, and complete control over hiring, firing and supervising employees; further, the employees didn’t participate in public pension or workers’ compensation funds. Also, the defendant had to maintain liability insurance covering the District. Taxes provide less than half the zoo’s funds, and the zoo’s budget is merely “passed on,” rather than analyzed and approved, by the District – any items not expressly rejected are presumed approved. Finally, the defendant complies with OSHA in operating the zoo, and OSHA doesn’t apply to government employers.

The Court held that because the District didn’t exercise operational control over the defendant, the defendant was not a local public entity under the Tort Immunity Act. Accordingly, the plaintiff’s complaint was not time-barred.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Gregory Smith (no changes).