Appeals Court Sides With School District in Concussion Case Involving Cheerleader

Oct 11, 2019

An Illinois state appeals court has affirmed a lower court and held that a school district was entitled to summary judgment in a case in which a cheerleader sued the school district for negligence in connection with injuries she suffered in a practice. In so ruling, it agreed that the cheerleader did not present “any evidence that the school district acted willfully and wantonly under 745 ILCS 10/1-210 (2002) as it took safety precautions,” as well as the fact that “the mats were sufficient, and there was adequate adult supervision.”
The plaintiff in the case was Samantha Biancorosso, a sixth-grade student in the Troy Community Consolidated School District No. 30C (District). Prior to the injury, Samantha had performed at several basketball games. In addition, her mother testified that she had no concerns about the mats used at practice, nor did she voice any concerns to Samantha’s coach. Furthermore, the mother had read and signed the district’s “Extra-Curricular Athletic/Activity and Concussion Information Permission Form.” The form acknowledged that there were “special dangers and risks” associated with extracurricular activities, including falls and broken bones.
On the day of the injury, the plaintiff was performing a stunt at a practice in the school cafeteria. “She asked to be the flyer,” wrote the court. “She tried the stunt several times with the coach present. Although she was wobbly when first attempting it, she was not unprepared. She could have asked for additional spotters if she felt uncomfortable. Samantha did not tell anyone she was scared; rather, she felt ready for the stunt. However, while attempting it, she tilted and fell, putting her arm out to break the fall. She landed on the mat, (suffering a concussion). Cheer mats covered the entire floor.”
The court further noted that “Samantha tried the stunt a couple of times and performed it correctly two or three times. (The coach) was working with Samantha and her group for approximately 15 minutes. If she believed Samantha was uncomfortable or unable to perform the stunt, she would have stayed and kept working with her,” according to her testimony.
Furthermore, the court wrote that the defendants “used cheer mats rather than tumbling mats because they were safer. The mats were inspected before each use and were compliant with the standards of the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) and the Illinois Elementary School Association.
“The complaint set forth the following as negligent conduct: failure to take adequate safety precautions; failure to provide sufficient supervision and spotters; failure to supervise and observe routines and maneuvers; and failure to supervise, train, or monitor cheerleading coaches regarding proper safety precautions and equipment. The complaint asserted that Samantha was ‘tossed’ in the air while practicing on ‘thin gymnastics mats’ on a tile floor, with inadequate spotters and without observation by a supervising adult. Samantha filed an amended complaint, replacing the negligence allegations with willful and wanton claims. The willful and wanton claims mirrored the negligence claims but substituted willful and wanton conduct for negligence.”
After the district court granted the defendant’s motion for summary judgment, Samantha appealed.
“The sole issue on appeal is whether the trial court erred when it granted the District’s summary judgment motion,” wrote the court. “Samantha argues that facts exist to support her claim that the District’s coaches allowed her to practice an ‘inherently dangerous cheerleading maneuver,’ knowing she was not prepared to perform it without ‘close adult supervision.’ According to Samantha, summary judgment was inappropriate because the facts in dispute demonstrate that the District acted willfully and wantonly, resulting in her being injured.”
The court continued: “To sustain a claim for willful and wanton conduct, a party must establish the elements of negligence, including that the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty, defendant breached the duty, and the breach caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Krywin v. Chicago Transit Authority, 238 Ill. 2d 215, 225, 938 N.E.2d 440, 345 Ill. Dec. 1 (2010). The plaintiff must also establish that the defendant deliberately intended to harm the plaintiff or displayed an utter indifference toward or conscious disregard for the plaintiff’s welfare. Harris v. Thompson, 2012 IL 112525, ¶ 41, 976 N.E.2d 999, 364 Ill. Dec. 436 (citing 745 ILCS 10/1-210 (West 2002)). The plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant knew of the impending danger and failed to exercise ordinary care to prevent it or recklessly and carelessly failed to discover the danger. Lynch v. Board of Education of Collinsville Community Unit District No. 10, 82 Ill. 2d 415, 429, 412 N.E.2d 447, 45 Ill. Dec. 96 (1980) (citing Klatt v. Commonwealth Edison Co., 33 Ill. 2d 481, 488, 211 N.E.2d 720 (1965)).
“Samantha’s amended complaint alleged that the District was willful and wanton by allowing her to perform stunts ‘in a location and on a surface’ the District should have known was hazardous and failed to take adequate safety precautions; by allowing her to practice ‘potentially hazardous routines’ without adequate supervision and/or spotters; by failing to supervise or observe Samantha while she performed ‘potentially hazardous routines and maneuvers’; and by failing to supervise, train, and monitor the cheerleading coaches regarding safe practices and use of safety measures and precautions.
“Samantha’s claims of inadequate safety precautions, supervision, and proper equipment are belied by the record. The deposition testimony established that the District used cheer mats, which were still in warranty and IHSA- and IESA-compliant, for cheerleading practice. The mats were inspected by the coaches prior to practice and on a weekly basis by the athletic director. To prepare for practice, the coaches and cheerleaders unrolled and positioned the mats. The coaches inspected the mats before each practice to ensure they were properly placed and connected to each other. The District policy prohibited practice if there was a problem with the mats. The District had not received any complaints regarding the mats. Samantha testified that the mats covered the entire floor of the practice area and it is undisputed that Samantha landed in the middle of a mat after her fall. Samantha did not present any facts that the mats were in disrepair or not positioned properly at practice. The District took sufficient safety precautions to protect Samantha from injury and the fact that she was injured despite its efforts does not equate to a finding of willful and wanton conduct. See Barr v. Cunningham, 2017 IL 120751, ¶ 18, 417 Ill. Dec. 667, 89 N.E.3d 315 (where school used some precautions to protect students from being injured, its employees were not willful and wanton even where the precautions were insufficient, and a student was injured).
“The evidence also demonstrated that there was sufficient supervision during the practice.”
The court added that Samantha alleged that “the routines were potentially hazardous” and that the coaches should have known.
“Despite Samantha’s claims, she did not offer any evidence that the District was aware of impending danger regarding the cheerleading stunts,” wrote the court. “She did not present any instances of prior injuries to other cheerleaders. There were no complaints regarding the condition or use of the mats during practice. (The mother) testified that she was unconcerned regarding the other stunts her daughter had performed and had no concerns about the mats. She was aware of the risks and dangers associated with cheerleading, including the possibility of broken bones. Accordingly, Samantha’s claim that the District knew and disregarded the possibility of impending danger is without merit. See Washington v. Chicago Board of Education, 204 Ill. App. 3d 1091, 1094-95, 562 N.E.2d 541, 150 Ill. Dec. 11 (1990) (willful and wanton claim properly dismissed where facts did not show that site of injury was unreasonably dangerous or that defendant knew or should have known of the danger).”
“Samantha did not present any evidence the District acted willfully and wantonly. The undisputed facts demonstrate that the District took safety precautions, that the mats were sufficient, and that there was adequate adult supervision. Thus, there is no genuine issue of material fact that Samantha’s injuries did not result from willful and wanton conduct by the District.”
Samantha Biancorosso et al. v. Troy Community Consolidated School District NO. 30C; Appellate Court of Illinois, Third District; Appeal No. 3-18-0613; 8/29/19
Attorneys of Record: (for appellant) Thomas P. Polacek, of McNamara Phelan McSteen, LLC, of Joliet. (for appellee) Monica E. Banet, of Law Offices of Lawrence Cozzi, of Warrenville.


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