A Cook County jury recently awarded a $148 million verdict to a young dancer who was paralyzed when a pedestrian shelter fell onto her at O’Hare International Airport. The verdict is reportedly the largest on record for an individual personal injury plaintiff in Illinois state history, and it provides a look into the process of litigation against municipalities.
Tragedy at the Airport
On August 2, 2015, then 24-year-old Tierney Darden was standing with her mother and her sister beneath a pedestrian shelter on a lower-level street outside O’Hare International Airport, having just returned from Minneapolis. As they were waiting to be picked up, a heavy storm knocked over the 750-pound pedestrian shelter, causing it to fall onto Ms. Darden.
She sustained dislocated vertebrae at T11-T12, which severed her spinal cord and left her paralyzed from the waist down. A dance student at Truman College who lived independently in the city at the time, Ms. Darden now lives in Vernon Hills under the care of her father.
Poor Pedestrian Shelter Maintenance
The pedestrian shelter that fell onto and paralyzed Ms. Darden was later discovered to have been defective. It was missing bolts and the majority of its ground mounts. A subsequent investigation by CBS 2 News Chicago revealed that other pedestrian shelters at the airport were also poorly maintained, with missing bolts, broken brackets, and corroded parts. In fact, one shelter was missing twenty-two bolts and eight screws that were supposed to connect it to the ground. As a result of this investigation, the City of Chicago removed all of O’Hare’s pedestrian shelters.
Ms. Darden’s attorneys alleged that it was the responsibility of the City of Chicago to maintain and repair those pedestrian shelters at the airport. The city acknowledged its liability in the matter, admitting to what the Plaintiff’s attorneys characterized as “wrongful conduct.” The city had offered to settle the claim for $30 million, to which Ms. Darden’s attorneys objected, resulting in the case going to trial.
The jury trial was to determine financial damages only, not liability, and hinged upon the extent of Ms. Darden’s injuries. Much of the trial involved arguments about whether a “spinal cord stimulator” could adequately alleviate Ms. Darden’s lifelong nerve pain. The jury ultimately agreed with the Plaintiff’s medical expert that it may not. On August 23, 2017, the jury awarded a record $148 million to Ms. Darden in order to allow for her family to pay for future medical bills and caregivers.
Litigation Against Municipalities
Litigation against municipalities, such as cities, states, and other government entities, carries with it a special set of challenges. City, county, and state governments enjoy special immunity from certain kinds of liability. In Illinois, such immunity is laid out in the Local Government and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, which protects “local public entities and public employees from liability arising from the operation of government.” This does not mean that a Plaintiff cannot pursue litigation against a municipality, just that the threshold of liability is higher. For example, a city like Chicago and its employees must not act negligently. It has a responsibility to maintain and keep public property free of dangerous conditions and to perform reasonable inspections to ensure that it is safely maintained. Failure to do so may expose a municipality to liability, but a careful legal argument is essential.
Moreover, the time specified by law in which you have to bring suit or resolve your claim – known as the “Statute of Limitations” – is shorter in cases involving cities, municipalities, or other government entities. In the state of Illinois, the Statute of Limitations is one year for personal injury cases involving municipalities, as opposed to the two years that you have in cases against private parties. Failure to bring suit or resolve your personal injury claim against a municipality within one year will result in your being forever barred from obtaining justice and compensation for their injuries.
As you may see, personal injury litigation against municipalities can be difficult. Consequently, injured parties in these types of situations may find that they could benefit from the guidance of an experienced personal injury lawyer to help them get the financial compensation that they deserve, like the personal injury lawyers at GWC Injury Lawyers, Illinois’ largest Personal Injury and Workers’ Compensation law firm.
If you or your loved one has been injured, whether as the result of the actions of a municipality or in some other way, please contact GWC today to schedule a free consultation with one of our attorneys. Call our office at (312) 464-1234 or click here to chat with one of our representatives.