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Hanumadass v. Coffield

December 28, 1999



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Cousins

Plaintiff, Marella Hanumadass, a physician formerly employed by Cook County Hospital, filed a legal malpractice action in the circuit court of Cook County against defendant, Coffield, Ungaretti & Harris, a law firm employed by the county to defend plaintiff in an action for medical malpractice that was settled without plaintiff's knowledge. Following trial, a jury returned a verdict in plaintiff's favor as to liability and awarded him $1 in damages. Plaintiff filed a posttrial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial on damages only, which was denied by the circuit court. On appeal, plaintiff contends: (1) the circuit court erred, as a matter of law, in barring damages for loss of reputation, embarrassment, health and state of mind; and (2) the jury verdict, awarding plaintiff $1 in damages, was against the manifest weight of the evidence.

For the following reasons, we affirm.


On August 8, 1983, a complaint was filed against Cook County Hospital and seven of its doctors, including plaintiff, for medical malpractice that resulted in the death of Marion Madison, a patient at the hospital. See Bass v. County of Cook, 83-L-15532 (Bass). Pursuant to an ordinance by the Cook County Board of Commissioners, the State's Attorney's office assigned the case to Coffield, Ungaretti & Harris (the law firm) to represent Cook County Hospital and the seven doctors in their defense of the litigation. See Ordinance No. 80-O-1 by Cook County Board of Commissioners (eff. January 7, 1980).

On December 14, 1989, Robert Chapman, one of plaintiff's attorneys, executed a "Settlement Agreement and Mutual Release," which dismissed all of the defendants from the Bass action for the payment of $200,000. The settlement disclaimed any liability on behalf of any of the doctors or the hospital, and Cook County paid the entire amount of the settlement as well as all legal fees associated with the defense of the litigation. However, plaintiff neither signed the settlement agreement nor was informed of the settlement until approximately eight months after it was signed by Chapman.

Pursuant to the mandatory reporting provision of the Medical Practice Act of 1987 (Medical Practice Act or Act) (225 ILCS 60/1 et seq. (West 1998)), any settlement of a malpractice case against a physician must automatically be reported to the Medical Disciplinary Board within the Department of Professional Regulation (the Department). As such, in connection with the settlement of the Bass lawsuit, Cook County Hospital submitted a "Professional Conduct and Disability Report" (disability report) regarding plaintiff's actions to the Department. See 225 ILCS 60/22 (West 1998).

After receipt of an August 13, 1990, letter written by the disciplinary board informing plaintiff that he had been reported by Cook County Hospital, plaintiff retained the law firm of Cornfield & Feldman to seek a retraction from the hospital. On October 12, 1990, at the behest of plaintiff's attorneys, Dr. Terrence M. Hanson, director of Cook County Hospital, sent a letter to Kevin K. Wright, Director of the Department, advising him that the disability report regarding plaintiff in connection with the Bass lawsuit was incorrect and should be withdrawn. The report was not withdrawn; however, after investigation and in response to Dr. Hanson's correspondence, the Department concluded that no further investigation was necessary.

On July 22, 1992, plaintiff filed a two-count amended complaint against the law firm, alleging, inter alia, that an attorney-client relationship existed between plaintiff and the law firm. Count I asserted that the law firm breached its duty "of competent representation and of undivided loyalty and of providing a level of representation that constituted a reasonable degree of care and skill" by failing to do 15 separate actions, including failure to bring a motion to dismiss plaintiff from the malpractice action "in the face of evidence that plaintiff could not possibly have been responsible for the underlying malpractice" and failure to inform plaintiff that a settlement had taken place. Count II alleged a breach of contract by the law firm and set forth claimed violations of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, specifically rules 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, 1.7, 1.13, 3.2, 3.3 and 3.4 (134 Ill. 2d Rs. 1.1, 1.3, 1.4, 1.7, 1.13, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4). Additionally, plaintiff alleged that, as a third-party beneficiary of the contract between the law firm and Cook County, his reputation was injured by the law firm's specific acts of misconduct referred to in count I.

On April 8, 1993, upon the law firm's motion, plaintiff's amended complaint was dismissed with prejudice insofar as it was predicated on "the settlement issue"; however, plaintiff was given leave to file an amended complaint with regard to "any other issues of representation."

On June 24, 1994, this court reversed the order of the circuit court, finding that plaintiff was entitled to a full disclosure of any intent to settle the Bass litigation without his consent. This court further remanded the case for a trial on the merits to resolve the issue of whether an attorney is liable for malpractice despite the fact that the underlying case was settled. See Hanumadass v. Coffield, Ungaretti & Harris, Ltd., No. 1-93-1589 (1994) (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).

On November 9, 1994, plaintiff's amended complaint was reinstated by the circuit court, as directed by this court in Hanumadass. A jury trial commenced on June 29, 1998, and concluded on June 30, 1998. Following the presentation of evidence, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff as to liability and awarded him $1 in damages. Thereafter, on July 29, 1998, plaintiff filed a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or, in the alternative, a new trial on damages. On August 10, 1998, following a hearing on the matter, plaintiff's motion was denied.

On September 4, 1998, plaintiff timely filed his ...

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