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Panchinsin v. Enterprise Cos.

OPINION FILED AUGUST 19, 1983.

JAMES W. PANCHINSIN ET AL., PLAINTIFFS-APPELLEES,

v.

THE ENTERPRISE COMPANIES ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Joseph Gordon, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE LORENZ DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

James and Linda Panchinsin, California residents, filed a tort action in Illinois on June 15, 1981, based on injuries allegedly suffered by James in California on June 17, 1979. Their lawsuit would have been barred in California by a one-year statute of limitations (compare Cal. Civ. Proc. Code secs. 312 and 340 (West 1982), with Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, pars. 13-202, 13-203), and the defendants *fn1 moved to dismiss on the grounds that the plaintiffs were precluded from bringing an action in Illinois by operation of the so-called borrowing statute (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 13-210). In response the plaintiffs argued that the borrowing statute is not applicable because the defendants allegedly are residents of Illinois. See Coan v. Cessna Aircraft (1973), 53 Ill.2d 526.

The trial court denied the motions to dismiss, but certified that ultimate termination of the case would be materially advanced by interlocutory appeal of its order and the following questions of law:

(1) Whether the borrowing statute applies to actions brought against Illinois residents; and

(2) Whether it violates the equal protection clauses of the United States and Illinois constitutions (U.S. Const., amend. 14, sec. 1; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, sec. 2) to provide that the borrowing statute is not applicable to defendants who are Illinois residents.

We granted leave to appeal from the trial court's interlocutory order (see 87 Ill.2d R. 308), and we affirm.

The key issue in resolution of the first question is whether this case is controlled by the holding of Coan v. Cessna Aircraft (1973), 53 Ill.2d 526. In Coan, an Illinois resident was injured in Kentucky on September 17, 1968, and filed an action in Illinois against several defendants, including another Illinois resident, on September 15, 1970. On the date the action was filed in Illinois, however, it would have been barred by Kentucky's one-year statute of limitations, and the defendants argued that the Illinois action was thereby precluded by operation of the borrowing statute. (53 Ill.2d 526, 527.) This statute provides that:

"When a cause of action has arisen in a state or territory out of this State, or in a foreign country, and, by the laws thereof, an action thereon cannot be maintained by reason of the lapse of time, an action thereon shall not be maintained in this state." Ill. Rev. Stat. 1969, ch. 83, par. 21, now recodified at Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 13-210.

In deciding Coan the supreme court sought to determine the intent of the General Assembly which enacted this law, and after stating that "[i]t is reasonable to conclude that [the borrowing statute] was intended to apply only to cases involving nonresident parties" (53 Ill.2d 526, 529), the court reversed a judgment which dismissed Coan's action as barred by the borrowing statute (53 Ill.2d 526, 527, 530).

The defendants in the present case argue that Coan is not binding precedent because it concerned a plaintiff who was an Illinois resident, whereas the Panchinsins were and are California residents. They also contend the court merely provided a non-binding obiter dictum when it stated that "[i]t is reasonable to conclude that [the borrowing statute] was intended to apply only to cases involving nonresident parties." (53 Ill.2d 526, 529.) We must therefore determine whether this statement is merely a nonprecedential passing comment or whether, under the doctrine of stare decisis, it is the ratio decidendi of the case.

The doctrine of stare decisis — a basic tenet of our legal system (Hoffman v. Lehnhausen (1971), 48 Ill.2d 323, 329) — provides that "[w]here the Supreme Court has declared the law on any point, it alone can overrule and modify its previous action, and the lower judicial tribunals are bound by such decision and it is the duty of such lower tribunals to follow such decision in similar cases." Agricultural Transportation Association v. Carpentier (1953), 2 Ill.2d 19, 27.

• 1 The ratio decidendi of a case is "the principle of law which is the basis of the actual decision and therefore, by virtue of the doctrine of stare decisis, the principle which subsequent courts>, faced with a set of facts indistinguishable in any material particular from those in the precedent case, must apply to the decision of the subsequent case also." (Walker, The Oxford Companion to Law 1033 (1980).) Conversely, "[a] court may not speak authoritatively upon questions not involved in the litigation" (Boddiker v. McPartlin (1942), 379 Ill. 567, 577), and "an expression or statement by the court on a matter not necessarily involved in the case nor necessary to a decision thereof" is obiter dictum — a mere passing comment which "is not binding as authority or precedent within the rule of stare decisis" (Department of Public Works & Buildings v. Butler Co. (1958), 13 Ill.2d 537, 545.) Therefore, to determine the ratio decidendi of a case, a court must ascertain (1) what facts were considered material by the court in the prior case, and (2) "what proposition of law justified that decision on these materials facts." Walker, The Oxford Companion to Law 1033 (1980).

• 2 According to the defendants, the material fact which distinguishes Coan from the present case is that Coan was an Illinois resident who, by happenstance, was injured in another State. Focusing on this as the key fact in Coan, the defendants contend the ratio decidendi of that case is that Illinois has an overriding interest in permitting an injured Illinois plaintiff to maintain an action in Illinois even though the action would have been barred in the State where it arose, and that "equitable considerations may militate against a strict application of the Borrowing Statute, particularly in instances where an Illinois resident plaintiff fortuitously suffers injury out of state." See, e.g., Templeman v. Baudhuin Yacht Harbor, Inc. (1st Cir. 1979), 608 F.2d 916 (applying Illinois law).

However, examination of the Coan opinion shows that under the court's analysis it is immaterial whether the plaintiff or the defendant was an Illinois resident, and that the material fact was that the case did not involve a plaintiff and defendant who were both nonresidents. The court started by stating that both plaintiff and at least one defendant were Illinois residents (53 Ill.2d 526, 527), and that one of the issues presented was whether "our borrowing statute was applicable only if the parties to a suit were nonresidents of Illinois." (Emphasis added.) (53 Ill.2d 526, 527.) Moreover, when the court construed the borrowing statute by reading it in relation to the tolling statute (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1969, ch. 83, par. 19; recodified, as amended, at Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 13-208), it made references which further establish that the material fact was that one of the parties (whether plaintiff or defendant) was an Illinois resident. See 53 Ill.2d 526, 528-29 ("If [the borrowing statute] is read to apply when a resident of Illinois is a party, as the court read it here, its operation and that of [the tolling statute] are in conflict" (emphasis added)), and 53 Ill.2d ...


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