In its decision filed on March 25, 2016, the Illinois First District Appellate Court (“Appellate Court”) discussed the interplay among three relevant statutes in an Illinois medical malpractice case. The Appellate Court ultimately held that the relation back doctrine applied so the wrongful death action was not barred.
The Three Statutes Involved
The Illinois medical malpractice statute of repose (735 ILCS 5/13-212(a)) does not bar the application of the relation back doctrine (735 ILCS 5/2-616(b)) for purposes of adding a claim to an existing case under the Illinois Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/0.01, et seq.); the relation back doctrine applies so the wrongful death action is not barred.
The Illinois Wrongful Death Act provides the exclusive remedy available when death occurs as a result of tortious conduct.The precipitating ‘injury’ for the plaintiffs in a wrongful death action, unlike the injury in a personal injury action, is the death; that the death must also be the result of a wrongfully caused injury suffered by the deceased at the hands of another does not alter the analysis.
The Illinois Wrongful Death Act
A wrongful death action will lie where the deceased had a claim that was not time-barred on or before his death.The Wrongful Death Act requires a plaintiff sue within two years from the time of death (740 ILCS 180/2). However, because the plaintiff’s rights are derivative of those which the decedent himself possessed, that time may be impacted by other limitations provisions, which may supersede the wrongful death statute and recast the time in which the action may be brought.
Section 13-212(a) of the Code establishes limitation and repose periods for filing medical malpractice actions against medical providers: ” … no action for damages for injury or death against any physician, dentist, registered nurse or hospital duly licensed under the laws of this State, whether based upon tort, or breach of contract, or otherwise, arising out of patient care shall be brought more than 2 years after the date on which the claimant knew, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have known, or received notice in writing of the existence of the injury or death for which damages are sought in the action, whichever of such date occurs first, but in no event shall such action be brought more than 4 years after the date on which occurred the act or omission or occurrence alleged in such action to have been the cause of such injury or death.”
The Illinois Relation Back Statute
The Illinois relation back statute provides: “The cause of action, cross claim or defense set up in any amended pleading shall not be barred by lapse of time under any statute or contract prescribing or limiting the time within which an action may be brought or right asserted, if the time prescribed or limited had not expired when the original pleading was filed, and if it shall appear from the original and amended pleadings that the cause of action asserted, or the defense or cross claim interposed in the amended pleading grew out of the same transaction or occurrence set up in the original pleading, even though the original pleading was defective in that it failed to allege the performance of some act or the existence of some fact or some other matter which is a necessary condition precedent to the right of recovery or defense asserted, if the condition precedent has in fact been performed, and for the purpose of preserving the cause of action, cross claim or defense set up in the amended pleading, and for that purpose only, an amendment to any pleading shall be held to relate back to the date of filing of the original pleading so amended.” 735 ILCS 5/2-616(b)).
Application of the Relation Back Doctrine and the Statute of Repose
The Appellate Court held that this case does not involve an original action newly filed after the expiration of the statute of repose, but a case that was active at the time of the decedent’s death and filed within the four-year repose period. This case involves the filing of an amendment to an action that was timely filed and pending when the decedent died. This distinguishing characteristic triggers the relation back doctrine, which provides that a pleading may be amended before final judgment under certain circumstances. This section “is remedial in nature and should be applied liberally to favor hearing a plaintiff’s claim.”
Thus, the Appellate Court stated that plaintiffs are not to be barred from having the merits heard because of technical rules of pleading, and courts are to elevate issues of substance over form. Medical malpractice plaintiffs, in particular, are afforded every reasonable opportunity to establish a case, and to this end, amendments to pleadings are liberally allowed to enable the action to be heard on the merits rather than brought to an end because of procedural technicalities.
The Present Case
In the case it was deciding, the Appellate Court stated that the plaintiff timely filed her original complaint within both the two-year statute of limitations and four-year statute of repose in medical malpractice actions. She alleged in her complaint that defendants failed, among other things, to diagnose her macular pathology. The plaintiff answered defendants’ interrogatories to apprise them of her medical condition, a reoccurrence of both lymphoma and ocular lymphoma. After the plaintiff died, the plaintiff’s daughter was substituted as the plaintiff. The daughter filed her amended complaint after the statutorily mandated time allotted to file a wrongful death action, which claims arose from the same transaction or occurrence described in the plaintiff’s original complaint and defendants were advised of the essential facts necessary to prepare their defense.
The Appellate Court held that the defendants have not shown how they will be prejudiced by the allowance of the daughter’s amended complaint, especially considering their attention was directed, within the statutory time prescribed, to the facts that form the basis of the claims asserted against them: the daughter’s amended complaint is not based on a new set of facts.
The Appellate Court held that it was enforcing the pertinent language of the Wrongful Death Act, the medical malpractice statute of repose, and the relation back doctrine as written without imposing limitations not expressed by the legislature upon them. Section 2-616(b) of the Code specifically states, “The cause of action, cross claim or defense set up in any amended pleading shall not be barred by lapse of time under any statute or contract prescribing or limiting the time within which an action may be brought or right asserted, if the time prescribed or limited had not expired when the original pleading was filed … ” Applying this specific language to the medical malpractice statute of repose allows the daughter to maintain the amended complaint alleging wrongful death, which interpretation does not create absurd, inconvenient, or unjust results, because the proposed amended complaint, as compared with the earlier, timely filed complaint, “show[s] that the events alleged were close in time and subject matter and led to the same injury.”
Source Lawler v. The University of Chicago Medical Center, et al., 2016 IL App (1st) 143189.
In Maryland, the Court of Appeals (Maryland’s highest appellate court) held in a 2013 case “that the Legislature did not intend to define ‘wrongful act’ so as to render a wrongful death claim contingent on the decedent’s ability to file timely a tort claim prior to death … we hold that the statute of limitations for bringing tort claims against health care providers in instances of alleged medical negligence does not apply to a claim for wrongful death.” In that case, the Maryland wrongful death beneficiaries had filed their wrongful death claims within three years of the date of death but the decedent had not brought a timely personal injury lawsuit against the defendant doctor, nor could she have at the time of her death, as it would have been time-barred by the statute of limitations applicable to Maryland medical negligence claims.
The Maryland Court of Appeals explained: “It is not wholly incorrect to state that a wrongful death claim is derivative of the decedent’s claim in some sense. The two actions stem from the same underlying conduct, which must have resulted in the decedent having a viable claim when she was injured. That connection, however, does not compel the conclusion that all defenses applicable to the decedent’s claim prior to her death would preclude necessarily maintenance of a wrongful death claim after the decedent’s death. That the Legislature’s purpose was to create a new and independent cause of action when it passed the wrongful death statute suggests that it did not intend for a statute of limitations defense against the decedent’s claim to bar consequently a subsequent wrongful death claim … We agree that it would be illogical for, by operation of a statute of limitations that applies to the decedent’s separate claim, a wrongful death claim to be time-barred before it can accrue. We do not interpret the language of Maryland’s wrongful death statute as intending such a result because ‘the statute must be given a reasonable interpretation, not one that is absurd, illogical, or incompatible with common sense.’”
Source Mummert, et al., v. Alizadeh, et al., 435 Md. 207.
If your family member or other loved one died after receiving medical care and you suspect that the cause of death may involve medical negligence, you should promptly seek the legal advice of a local medical malpractice lawyer in your U.S. state who may investigate your medical malpractice wrongful death claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.
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