14992097864_7082cb73f8_zAccording to Section 3-107(b) of the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, no public entity or public employee is “liable for an injury caused by a condition of . . . [a]ny hiking, riding, fishing or hunting trail.” 745 ILCS 10/3-107(b). The purpose of the statute is to encourage public entities to maintain such facilities in more-or-less their natural state.

But what is a “riding trail” under the Act? The Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide that question in late January, allowing a petition for leave to appeal in Corbett v. County of Lake, a decision from the Second District.

Corbett began in 2013 when plaintiff, who was part of a group of cyclists riding a path within Highland Park, was thrown from her bicycle and seriously injured. Plaintiff alleges that the defendants were on notice of the poor condition of the path prior to the accident – weeds and other vegetation were growing through the asphalt, making portions of the path broken, bumpy and elevated.

The City raised Section 3-107(b) as an affirmative defense in its answer, and subsequently moved for summary judgment, arguing that the path where plaintiff was injured was a “riding trail” under the Act. The plaintiff opposed the motion, arguing that the stretch of path where she was injured runs through a developed area of the park, not through a forest or a mountainous region. There are allegedly commercial buildings on both sides of the path, and many businesses have cyclone fences abutting the path. Finally, Commonwealth Edison allegedly owns several utility poles along the path.

The trial court granted both defendants summary judgment. The court held that the County was immune under Section 3-106 of the Act (745 ILCS 10/3-106), which requires proof of willful and wanton conduct to impose liability on a public entity for injury caused by conditions on public property used for recreational purposes, and that the City was immune under Section 3-107(b). The plaintiffs didn’t appeal the ruling as to the County defendant, but did appeal with respect to the City.

The Appellate Court reversed. Reviewing the limited earlier caselaw construing the term “riding trail,” the Court concluded that a path need not be totally unimproved in order to qualify as a riding trail – many if not most trails have been modified at least slightly in order to make them accessible to the public. However, the Court held that the plain meaning of the term “trail” was a “marked path through a forest or mountainous region.” That restrictive definition necessarily meant that the path in Corbett was not a “riding trail” under the statute. Although some development near the path did not per se mean that the path was not a “riding trail,” when industrial and residential development surrounded a path, by definition it could not be a “riding trail.” Since the Act was not applicable to the claims against the City, the Appellate Court reversed.

We expect Corbett to be decided by next winter.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Eli Christman (no changes).