The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in a personal injury case that Brookfield Zoo should not have the same protections as governmental organizations in Illinois, despite it being situated on public land.
On Sept. 24, the state high court ruled that the zoo fails important parts of the test used to decide whether it is a “public entity” under state law. It is not protected by the Illinois Tort Immunity law, which has a one-year statute of limitations.
Mary Jane Theis authored the unanimous opinion of the court. The ruling upheld an opinion of the Illinois First District Appellate Court, authored by Justice Terrence Lavin, which itself overturned a ruling by Judge John P. Kirby of Cook County Circuit Court.
The personal injury lawsuit was brought in 2012 by Kristine O’Toole against the Chicago Zoological Society, which is the entity operating Brookfield Zoo. O’Toole alleged that she suffered injuries in 2010 when she tripped and fell at the zoo. She claimed the zoo’s management was negligent.
The zoo contended that O’Toole’s lawsuit should be barred, because lawsuits brought against public entities in Illinois are subject to a one-year statute of limitations. The zoo asserted that it was a not-for-profit corporation residing on public land owned by the Cook County Forest Preserve District and organized to conduct public business. In support of its claim, the zoo also asserted that it benefited the community as a whole, received funding from the district and had to submit its budget for review by the district.
However, the appellate court noted that Brookfield Zoo is operated by the Chicago Zoological Society, which is largely autonomous, as opposed to the Lincoln Park Zoo, which is wholly owned by the Chicago Park District. The appellate court also noted that the zoo’s employees do not receive government pensions, and the zoo is subject to OSHA regulation, while government employers are exempt.
The state high court, in siding with the appellate court, held that the Forest Preserve District, while maintaining control over the real property under the zoo, does not exercise operational control over the Society, and the Society is therefore not a public entity.