In Graham v. Lakeview Food Pantry, 2019 IL App (1st) 182003, the First District affirmed summary judgment for defendants, including the Catholic Bishop of Chicago (“the Archdiocese”), on plaintiff’s negligence complaint following a fall at defendant’s church. Ultimately, the court found that plaintiff’s claim against the Archdiocese was time-barred by the Illinois statute of repose for construction (735 ILCS 5/13-214(b) (West 2016) (“the statute”).
On January 17, 2015, plaintiff went to the Archdiocese’s church to accept food donations from co-defendant, Lakeview Food Pantry, which leased space in the church’s basement. Plaintiff was in the process of leaving the church when the accident occurred. In order to exit the door, plaintiff had to walk from a landing and step through the 10- to 11-inch doorway threshold to the outside. The ground on the outside of the door was not level with the threshold. As plaintiff was navigating the threshold, he unexpectedly encountered the drop in elevation and lost his balance. He fell to his left and into a landscaping trench, where he struck his face on a metal fence, causing substantial injury. At the time of the fall, plaintiff was talking to a church volunteer who had been holding the door open from the outside. He was also carrying a box of goods in front of him at mid-torso level and admitted that his vision of his feet was obstructed. There was no warning of the change in elevation near the door where plaintiff fell.
Plaintiff’s complaint contained various allegations of negligence, including improper maintenance and the failure to warn entrants of the dangerous condition. Discovery revealed that the foundation of the entryway where plaintiff fell was constructed in 1911, with the asphalt pavement just outside the door being added in 2002 and the current door/threshold in 2003. The church’s facilities engineer testified that no subsequent changes to the area had been made, and there had been no prior accidents or falls involving the area in question. Discovery also revealed that the Archdiocese was involved in both the 2002 and 2003 construction improvement projects, including serving as construction manager for both projects.
In its motion for summary judgment, the Archdiocese argued that it did not owe plaintiff a duty as plaintiff’s claim was barred by the statute, which prohibits a tort action “brought against any person for an act or omission of such person in the design, planning, supervision, observation or management of construction, or construction of an improvement to real property after 10 years have elapsed from the time of such act or omission.” The statute was enacted to protect anyone who engages in those enumerated construction-related activities from the onerous task of defending against stale claims. Wright v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, 335 Ill. App. 3d 948, 955 (2002).
In opposition, plaintiff argued that the testimony was insufficient to show that the Archdiocese satisfied the enumerated activities under the statute, and that regardless, the Archdiocese owed an ongoing duty to maintain its premises in a safe manner. In particular, plaintiff argued that it was the adjacent landscaping trench that proximately caused his fall and that the Archdiocese was negligent in either allowing bushes previously in the trench to be removed or to die off, which created a dangerous condition.
In affirming summary judgment for the Archdiocese, the Court noted that it was uncontroverted that more than 10 years had elapsed since the improvements were made to the area where plaintiff fell. It also explained that the Archdiocese’s role in the construction improvement process was sufficient to trigger the statute. In doing so, it cited evidence that the church’s facilities engineer issued a check to a contractor for the 2002 improvement project and personally signed off on the construction proposal for the 2003 improvement project. The Court then dismissed plaintiff’s argument that the landscaping trench was improperly maintained as an attempt to sidestep the statute, noting that speculation was needed in order to conclude that the presence of bushes in the trench would have prevented his fall.
As an aside, summary judgment for co-defendant, Lakeview Food Pantry, was also affirmed. The court held that, per the terms of the lease, plaintiff’s fall occurred in a common area, which was not under the control of the pantry, and thus the pantry owed no duty to plaintiff.
The Illinois statute of repose on construction was enacted to insulate all participants in the construction process from the onerous task of defending against stale claims. While “participants” are normally thought of as construction companies and their offshoots, Graham reminds us that the statute also affords protection to landowners, provided they can show that they were sufficiently involved in the construction or construction improvement process. Defense practitioners should be mindful of this, and avoid jumping ahead to more conventional defenses, such as “lack of notice” or “open and obvious,” while overlooking what can be a very straightforward and valuable defense to premises liability claims.