SPRINGFIELD — A lawsuit filed against the Normal school district by Urbana elementary school students who were sexually abused by their teacher can proceed after an Illinois Supreme Court decision issued Thursday.
In a divided opinion, the high court ruled that because the Normal district misled Urbana about former teacher Jon White’s work record, the students are entitled to pursue damages.
The ruling was issued in the case of two girls who sued the McLean County District 5 and its administrators for "passing" White on to the Urbana School District's Thomas Paine Elementary School.
Here is a link to the 42-page ruling.
The ruling overturns Champaign County Judge Mike Jones' dismissal of the case three years ago and sends it back to Champaign County Circuit Court for further hearings. The Fourth District Appellate Court had unanimously overturned Jones' dismissal in 2011, holding that since the Normal school district created the danger to the students, it is liable for harm done to them.
White, 31, is serving a 60-year prison sentence after pleading guilty in February 2008 to eight counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse in Champaign County and two counts in McLean County.
Before being hired by the Urbana school district, White taught in an elementary school in Normal from 2002 to 2005. He was hired as a second-grade teacher at Thomas Paine in August 2005 and remained in that post until his arrest Jan. 31, 2007.
The Urbana school district settled claims filed by the victims.
Champaign attorney Ellyn Bullock and Charleston attorney Sean Britton filed suit in state court against the McLean County school district in 2008 alleging that the district had a duty to warn Urbana about White's actions in Normal. It was dismissed at the trial level in June 2009 under the so-called public duty rule, which says a government entity owes a duty of care to the public at large but not to individuals.
The Fourth District Appellate Court disagreed with that application, saying that it was not a case where the McLean County school officials negligently performed their ordinary duties but one where they allegedly created the danger complained of.
The McLean County District 5 then appealed that ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court, which heard arguments in January.
The following summary was provided by the Supreme Court along with the justices’ 5-2 ruling, which contained special concurrences by some justices and an opinion issued by the dissenters.
Justice Rita Garman of Danville concurred in part and dissented in part.
“Insofar as the Tort Immunity Act provides immunity from negligence, that immunity is not applicable here because the plaintiffs did not allege mere negligence, but willful and wanton conduct. During the 2004-05 school year in McLean County, White had twice been removed from his classroom for disciplinary reasons and he did not complete the academic year before he departed. When McLean administrators filled out an employment “verification” form for the Urbana school district, this information was omitted even though it would have been easy to accurately fill out the form. This misstatement of White’s employment history implied that his severance was routine, rather than due to his misconduct. A truthful disclosure could well have been a “red flag” to Urbana to investigate the circumstances of White’s departure. Had Urbana been aware of this discrepancy, it is certainly possible that it would have investigated further and either not hired White or fired him before he offended again. Because of the risk of recidivism associated with sex offenders, the injuries which did occur here were reasonably likely and foreseeable, and it cannot be said as a matter of law that what occurred was so remote or unlikely as to preclude a duty owed by the defendants. The plaintiffs sufficiently alleged facts supporting a finding that the defendants, having undertaken the affirmative act of filling out the employment verification form, owed the plaintiffs a duty to use reasonable care in ensuring that the information was accurate."
“Noting the public policy in Illinois favoring the protection of children, the supreme court held that the circuit court should not have dismissed for lack of a duty of care, and the cause was remanded there for further proceedings.”
“The remaining issues to be decided are the factual ones of whether a duty was breached, whether there was willful and wanton conduct, and whether it proximately caused plaintiffs’ injuries. These are for the jury.”