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10/19/95 SISTER MARIE GOLLA v. GENERAL MOTORS

October 19, 1995

SISTER MARIE GOLLA, APPELLANT,
v.
GENERAL MOTORS CORPORATION, APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fourth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Champaign County, the Hon. George S. Miller, Judge, presiding.

Chief Justice Bilandic delivered the opinion of the court:

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bilandic

CHIEF JUSTICE BILANDIC delivered the opinion of the court:

The plaintiff, Sister Marie Golla, brought a products liability action in the circuit court of Champaign County against the defendant, General Motors Corporation, seeking damages allegedly caused by a defective automobile manufactured by the defendant. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant on the ground that the action was barred by the statute of limitations. The appellate court affirmed. We allowed the plaintiff's petition for leave to appeal. (145 Ill. 2d R. 315.) We now affirm.

According to the allegations in the plaintiff's complaint, the plaintiff purchased a 1984 Buick Skylark on June 21, 1984. On September 3, 1985, the plaintiff was operating this Buick when it was involved in a collision with another automobile. At the time of the collision, the plaintiff's seat slid violently forward, subjecting the plaintiff's left shoulder to trauma from the three-point passenger restraint that she was wearing. As a result, the plaintiff allegedly developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). The plaintiff filed her complaint against the defendant on August 7, 1989, almost four years after the accident occurred. The complaint alleged that the Buick was not reasonably safe when it left the defendant's control because a defect in the driver's seat caused that seat to slide forward upon impact.

The defendant filed an answer and raised the statute of limitations as an affirmative defense. Thereafter, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting that the plaintiff's action was barred under the two-year limitations period found in section 13-202 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 110, par. 13-202). Attached to the motion as an exhibit was a request to admit facts which the defendant had sent to the plaintiff. The request asked the plaintiff to admit that she was involved in an automobile accident on September 3, 1985; that she was seen by Dr. Sol Barnett on that same day immediately after the accident; that she was seen by Dr. Barnett again the following day, at which time she complained of left wrist discomfort and swelling; and that she was seen by Dr. Barnett on April 8, 1986, complaining of discomfort in her left shoulder and left arm. The plaintiff did not respond to the request and, therefore, these facts were deemed admitted. (134 Ill. 2d R. 216.) The defendant's motion argued that these admissions demonstrated that the plaintiff was aware of her injuries on September 3, 1985, the date of the accident, and that the limitations period expired two years from that date.

In response to the defendant's motion for summary judgment, the plaintiff asserted that her action was not time-barred because the discovery rule found in section 13-213(d) of the Code applied. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 110, par. 13-213(d).) She claimed that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until doctors diagnosed her condition as RSD in March of 1988. In support of this claim, the plaintiff filed an affidavit stating that she did not experience symptoms of RSD until November 1987 and that the condition was not diagnosed until March 1988.

The trial court denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment, concluding that the discovery rule applied and that the plaintiff's response to the motion for summary judgment raised a genuine issue of material fact as to when the plaintiff knew or should have known of the existence of personal injury. The defendant then filed a motion to reconsider the denial of its motion for summary judgment. Attached to the motion to reconsider as exhibits were several documents, including a letter of complaint that the plaintiff sent to Buick's district office on June 4, 1986. In this letter, the plaintiff stated:

"On September 3, 1985, our car, a 1984 Buick Skylark was involved in an accident in which in [sic] sustained considerable damage. So violent was the impact of the crash that the front seat broke lose [sic] from the floor causing considerable physical hurt from the seat beat [sic] which forced me to remain in place."

In addition to this letter, the defendant submitted, as exhibits, portions of Dr. Barnett's medical records and discovery deposition. These exhibits revealed that Barnett examined the plaintiff on September 3, 1985, shortly after the accident, and determined that the plaintiff suffered from a contusion of the chest as a result of the accident. The next day, September 4, 1985, Barnett again examined the plaintiff and determined that she had suffered a sprain or contusion of the left wrist.

The defendant also attached to the motion to reconsider portions of the discovery depositions of Drs. Brown, McGuire, Depersio, and Dallas, each of whom had examined the plaintiff after she was diagnosed with RSD. Each doctor testified during the deposition that he obtained a medical history from the plaintiff before examining her. The doctors testified that they were told by the plaintiff either that she had developed RSD in 1985 or that she began to experience pain or other symptoms of RSD in 1985, after her automobile accident. The defendant's motion to reconsider alleged that the plaintiff's 1986 letter to Buick and statements that she made to various physicians established, as a matter of law, that the plaintiff knew of an actionable injury immediately after the accident.

The plaintiff filed a reply to the motion for reconsideration, in which she pointed out that her 1986 letter to Buick was a complaint about repairs performed on her automobile. The plaintiff also attached the depositions of Drs. Rubenstein and Quigg to her reply. Dr. Rubenstein's deposition testimony revealed that the plaintiff, following the accident, experienced a lack of dexterity and an uncomfortable coolness in her left hand, "forcing her to give up avid piano playing." The plaintiff attributed these symptoms to her previously diagnosed migraine headaches. Dr. Quigg's deposition revealed that, although the plaintiff experienced new neurological symptoms after her accident, she assumed that these symptoms were simply manifestations of previously diagnosed conditions for which the plaintiff was being treated. The trial court granted the defendant's motion for reconsideration and entered summary judgment in favor of the defendant.

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings, depositions and affidavits, construed most strongly against the movant and most liberally in favor of the opponent, present no genuine issue of material fact and show that judgment should be granted as a matter of law. ( Wojdyla v. City of Park Ridge (1992), 148 Ill. 2d 417, 170 Ill. Dec. 418, 592 N.E.2d 1098.) The purpose of summary judgment is not to try a question of fact but to determine whether one exists. ( Mitchell v. Jewel Food Stores (1990), 142 Ill. 2d 152, 154 Ill. Dec. 606, 568 N.E.2d 827.) If only one conclusion can be drawn from the undisputed facts, then the timeliness of the plaintiff's complaint becomes a question of law for the trial court to determine. Nolan v. Johns-Manville Asbestos (1981), 85 Ill. 2d 161, 171, 52 Ill. Dec. 1, 421 N.E.2d 864.

The only issue raised in this appeal is whether the circuit court properly granted summary judgment for the defendant on the ground that the plaintiff's August 1989 complaint was time-barred under the statute of limitations. In resolving this issue, we must consider a question of first impression: when an accident occurs which causes the plaintiff to suffer an immediate physical injury (e.g., chest contusion) and later more serious injuries appear (e.g., reflex sympathetic dystrophy) ...


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