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Brown v. Walker Nursing Home

September 30, 1999


Appeal from Circuit Court of Cass County No. 97L1 Honorable M. Carol Pope, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cook


On January 9, 1995, Javette Brown (Brown) gave birth to Kayla Cox. Kayla was born prematurely, and shortly after birth she died from cardiorespiratory failure. In 1997, plaintiffs Brown and Randall Cox (Cox), individually and as administrators of the estate of Kayla Cox (collectively referred to as plaintiffs), filed claims against defendants Walker Nursing Home, Inc. (Walker), and Kathy Riner, L.P.N. (Riner) (Walker and Riner are collectively referred to as defendants). After plaintiffs filed their second-amended complaint, defendants moved for summary judgment. The trial court granted defendants' motion and plaintiffs appeal. We affirm.


In July 1994, Brown began working for Walker as a certified nurse's assistant (CNA). Brown's job responsibilities included lifting and moving elderly nursing home residents. In October 1994, Brown learned she was pregnant. Shortly there-after, Brown experienced complications with her pregnancy and her physician ordered her not to lift anything in excess of 25 pounds. Both Walker and Riner were advised of Brown's pregnancy and weight restriction.

Brown was informed that if she continued to work, she was required to perform the normal duties of a CNA and that Walker could not accommodate her weight restriction. Brown continued to work because of her own financial necessity. However, after learning of Brown's condition, Walker transferred Brown to a different wing of the nursing home where two other CNAs were on duty and, according to Riner, they were encouraged to help Brown with any lifting. According to Brown, her daily activities on the east wing were the same as her previous assignment except that she had others available to help her when lifting patients. Brown also acknowledged, however, that she would lift weights in excess of her 25-pound weight restriction on a daily basis and that she was aware that she was violating her physician's restriction.

On the morning of January 8, 1995, Brown felt a sharp pain across her back while lifting a resident with help from another CNA. She informed Riner of a second incident a short time later but continued to work because she was not in pain. Brown knew both lifts violated her 25-pound weight restriction. Later in the morning when she was lifting a patient, Brown experienced a sensation in her abdominal area. Brown went to the rest room and felt a "bubble" protruding from her vaginal area, which appeared as she sat, but disappeared when she stood up. Brown reported the "bubble" to Riner, who told Brown that she should go to the hospital. Brown told Riner that she was not in any pain, and she did not appear to Riner to be in any pain. Brown did not know whether her condition was an emergency, but she claims she was beside herself and walked out of the rest room crying. Brown did not request an ambulance and did not request to lie down. Brown called Cox at their home, which was 18 miles away, and asked him to pick her up and take her to the hospital.

Riner asked Brown if she would finish feeding the residents before she left since the nursing home was under-staffed that day and it would take some time before Brown's ride arrived. Riner believed this activity would not be harmful to Brown because it simply involved sitting. According to Brown, at this point she was crying, hysterical, and upset, not only due to what had happened but also because Riner instructed her to feed the patients before going to the hospital. Cox arrived about 30 minutes later and took Brown to the hospital. The next day, January 9, 1995, Brown gave birth to Kayla, who died shortly thereafter.

Plaintiffs filed suit, alleging claims for wrongful death, a survival action, and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. In plaintiffs' second-amended complaint, they alleged that defendants breached their duty of reasonable care toward them in the following ways: (1) by failing to adhere to Brown's weight restriction; (2) by failing to find other work for Brown during the course of her pregnancy that would have been commensurate with her weight restriction; (3) by failing to have Brown proceed immediately to her physician on January 8, 1995, when she experienced complications with her pregnancy and by failing to provide medical attention to Brown; and (4) by requesting Brown to continue working despite the complications she was experiencing. These same points are alleged in each of plaintiffs' claims, including the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against Walker.

Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing that, under Illinois law, they owed no duty to plaintiff to accommodate her restrictions. Plaintiffs agreed that Illinois does not require an employer to provide light-duty work for its employees, nor does it require an employer to retain an "at will" employee who is medically unable to perform her job duties. At oral argument on the motion, plaintiffs argued that although defendants had no duty initially, they voluntarily assumed a duty to Brown once they moved her to another wing of the nursing home where she would have more assistance with lifting patients. The trial court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment, finding that defendants did not owe Brown a duty to accommodate her lifting restrictions and that defendants did not assume any additional duties to Brown by allowing her to work on a wing where she would have more assistance.

A trial court properly grants summary judgment when the pleadings, affidavits, depositions, admissions, and exhibits on file, when viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, reveal that no genuine issue exists as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Busch v. Graphic Color Corp., 169 Ill. 2d 325, 333, 662 N.E.2d 397, 402 (1996). We review the grant of a summary judgment de novo. Busch, 169 Ill. 2d at 333, 662 N.E.2d at 402.


In this appeal, plaintiffs raise no error specific to the dismissal of the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against Walker. Rather, the issues raised relate to whether defendants voluntarily assumed a duty of care for Brown's safety by transferring her to an area where she would have assistance in lifting the nursing home residents.

To recover in this action, plaintiffs must establish that defendants owed Brown a duty, breached that duty, and that plaintiffs have been injured as a proximate result of defendants' breach of the duty. Ward v. K mart Corp., 136 Ill. 2d 132, 140, 554 N.E.2d 223, 226 (1990). The existence of a duty, requiring one to conform to a certain standard of conduct to protect another against an unreasonable risk, is the foundation of every negligence case. Whether such a duty exists ...

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