August 24, 2016: Court Upholds $2.5M Verdict in Case Where Teacher Failed to Follow District Policy

The Appellate Court of Illinois, Second District, has upheld a $2.5 million jury verdict awarded to the family of an 18-year-old student who collapsed and died during a class at Oswego Community High School. See In re Estate of Jeffrey Stewart, 2016 IL App (2d) 151117 (August 24, 2016).

When Jeffrey Stewart collapsed, his teacher instructed two other students to go to the other side of the building to get the school nurse. However, contrary to district policy, the teacher did not call or direct someone call 911 for another 7 to 20 minutes. An autopsy revealed that asthma was the cause of the student’s death.

The student’s mother sued, alleging that the teacher, as an agent of Oswego Community Unit School District 308, acted willfully and wantonly in response to the student’s collapse. She also alleged that other school agents acted willfully and wantonly, particularly with regard to the teacher’s training.

The District moved for summary judgment, arguing that it was immune from liability under the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, but the trial court denied that motion.  After the jury returned the $2.5 million verdict, the trial court also denied the district’s post-trial motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict and, alternatively, for a new trial.

In affirming the trial court’s rulings, the Illinois Appellate Court noted that school districts enjoy limited immunity against negligent conduct, but not against willful and wanton conduct.  The Appellate Court noted that “willful and wanton conduct” is defined as a “course of action that shows an actual or deliberate intention to cause harm, or that, if not intentional, shows an utter indifference to, or conscious disregard for, the safety of others on their property.” In analyzing the case, the Appellate Court determined that the jury could reasonably have found that the teacher’s inaction by failing to call 911 was so out of balance with the danger posed to the student that it amounted to willful and wanton conduct. Another key issue noted by the Court was the fact that the teacher disregarded District policy, which specifically directs teachers to call or have someone call 911 immediately in life-and-death circumstances.

The full Appellate Court opinion is available at http://bit.ly/2cHQgpL.

Please contact one of our attorneys at 630.313.4750 if you have any questions about the case or its implications for Illinois school districts.