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Saying owners of a playing field and a Little League manager had no duty to stop or intervene in a brutal attack on a coach by opposing team coaches, the Illinois Supreme Court in a landmark decision Nov. 16 reversed a lower court finding that the not-for-profits be held liable in the 10-year-old incident. The court, however, did not stand unanimous, with dissenting Chief Justice Moses W. Harrison II issuing a rebuke of his fellow justices for second-guessing the jury verdict and for declaring “open season on volunteer coaches,” who Harrison wrote “should forget about watching the base runners or catcher’s signals” and instead “just watch their backs.” Still, off the hook are two not-for-profit groups: Justice Willow Springs Little League and Bridgeview Little League Association. An attorney for plaintiff John Hills intends to appeal for reconsideration. “We think that what this decision now means is that with reference to youth sports, at least as it relates to volunteer coaches and perhaps even to youth participants, there are no duties owed to them — no duties to summon police or medical care if that’s needed,” said James H. Wolf, of Chicago’s Wolf & Tennant. The high court sided with Justice and Bridgeview, which maintained they could not have foreseen and therefore were not responsible for the July 30, 1990 attack on Hills, who was hospitalized for five days after suffering a broken nose and other injuries during a tournament game between the Lemont All-Stars and the Bridgeview All-Stars. John Hills et al. v. Bridgeview Little League Association et al., Nos. 87895, 87910 cons. Michael Resis, an attorney with Chicago’s O’Hagan Smith & Amundsen who filed an amicus curiae on behalf of Little League Inc., said, “The little leagues … certainly deplore what happened to John Hills at the game.” He added, however, “We also believe the Supreme Court got it right when they held that neither Little League was responsible for the attack that took place.” Resis predicted the case would be looked at by other courts dealing with similar issues, particularly since this may be the highest court to rule on a tort liability case involving youth sports. Chicago lawyer and Sports Illustrated legal affairs reporter Lester Munson also says he believes the case is important, but wasn’t as happy with the result. “I felt this decision was a chance for the law of the United States to recognize for the potential of violence at children’s games,” said Munson, whose July article mentioning the case was cited in Justice Harrison’s dissent. Munson said the Illinois Supreme Court passed up a chance to define duties to protect in youth sports. “They went backwards,” he said. “They refused to acknowledge the problem.” The case stems from a complaint that John Hills, then a first base coach for the Lemont Little League Association, made to umpires that Bridgeview’s first base coach, George Loy Jr., then 16, was trying to influence calls by shouting them before umpires got the chance. Later in the game, Loy’s father, Bridgeview assistant coach George Loy Sr., became increasingly agitated and began shouting insults at Hills, calling him a “four-eyed mother—-er” and threatening to harm him. Witnesses reported that after the sixth inning, Hills bent over to pick up a scorecard and before he could get up, the elder Loy attacked him from behind, punching and kicking Hills to the ground. Soon George Jr. joined in, as did Bridgeview manager Ted Loy, George Sr.’s brother. When a Lemont coach tried to break up the fight, he, too, was hit. In the end, Hills was knocked unconscious with a broken nose, fractured rib and injuries to his knee, sustained when George Jr. hit him with an aluminum bat. The Loy brothers were arrested, charged with battery and later sentenced to probation and community service. John Hills and his wife Patricia filed suit in 1992 against all three Loys, Bridgeview and Justice. In 1997, a jury found in the Hills’ favor, awarding them $645,210. The Loys defaulted in the case and did not appeal; an Illinois Appellate Court later upheld the verdict against Bridgeview and Justice. In a lengthy opinion, the Illinois justices thoroughly reviewed whether the Bridgeview organization had an obligation under tort law to control the actions of its coaches. And while the high court determined Ted Loy was an agent of Bridgeview and George Jr. and Sr. servants of the organization, the justices reasoned Bridgeview could not be held liable for the fight because there was no warning the attack would occur. Writing for the majority, Justice Mary Ann G. McMorrow focused on statements from the Hills, in which both said that despite the swearing and gestures, neither thought George Loy Sr. would physically assault John Hills. For defendant Justice Willow Springs Little League, which owned and operated the game field, the court determined it had no duty to protect Hills from the attack because the field was not open to the public for business purposes. While there are exceptions to the general rule that a property owner owes no duty of care to an entrant for criminal conduct of a third party, the majority reasoned that such an exception did not exist because there was no “special relationship” between Justice and Hills. Acknowledging the issue as “much debated,” the high court pointed out a split in the appellate courts in Illinois. McMorrow noted that one line of reasoning holds that a special relationship arises when a landowner holds the premises open to the public for entry for business purposes. Loomis v. Granny’s Rocker Nite Club, 250 Ill. App. 3d 753, 758 (1993); Hayes v. O’Donnell, 76 Ill. App. 3d 695, 697 (1979). The second theory holds, as the Hills maintained, that the question of special relationship lies with whether the landowner receives a benefit from the lawful entrant. Hill v. Charlie Club, Inc., 279 Ill. App. 3d 759. The Hills contended that because Justice charged a $125 fee for each team’s use of the field, it benefited from John Hills being there and had more responsibility toward him. The court looked to its 1988 decision in Rowe v. State Bank for guidance. In Rowe, the court found that a possessor of land may have a duty to protect lawful entrants from criminal attacks “where the parties are in a position of ***business invitor and invitee.” That decision relied on a 1973 Illinois opinion in O’Brien v. Colonial Village, Inc., which held that Restatement (Second) of Torts, Section 344 can be interpreted to require property owners, where the public is invited in, to maintain their premises in a reasonably safe condition and that “there may be circumstances which extend this responsibility to protect a patron against a criminal attack by a third person.” In Hills, however, the court declined to make an alteration that would create a special relationship based on the benefit a landholder receives from an entrant. In so ruling, the majority reversed for both Bridgeview and Justice the circuit judge’s denial of motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Justice Harrison, who concluded “violence in youth sports has become commonplace,” disputed the majority’s reasoning, saying that “By differentiating between members of the general public and tournament entrants such as Hills and his team, the majority’s analysis produces an anomalous result …. Bridgeview might owe a duty to spectators who came to watch the tournament and buy refreshments and souvenirs, but it would never have an obligation to those who were actually on the field participating in the games, no matter how egregious the circumstances.” Bruce R. Pfaff, who filed an amicus curiae siding with Hills on behalf of the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association, was disappointed with the decision but doesn’t think there will be broad implications for youth sports. “I think you have to confine each case to its facts,” said Pfaff, of Chicago’s Bruce R. Pfaff & Associates. He said he could, for instance, see a situation in which sufficient forewarning of danger would allow for liability. “I don’t think this gives a Little League association or a team itself blanket immunity,” he said.

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