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Beetle v. Wal-Mart Associates

December 21, 2001

IRENE BEETLE, AS SPECIAL ADM'R OF THE ESTATE OF ROBERT BEETLE, DECEASED, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
WAL-MART ASSOCIATES, INC., WAL-MART STORES EAST, INC., WAL-MART STORES, INC., AND E.W. HOWELL COMPANY, INC., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of De Kalb County. No. 99-L-28 Honorable John W. Countryman, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Grometer

PUBLISHED

Plaintiff, Irene Beetle, as special administrator of the estate of her deceased husband, Robert Beetle, appeals the order of the circuit court of De Kalb County dismissing with prejudice her second amended complaint against defendants, Wal-Mart Associates, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores East, Inc., Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., and E.W. Howell Company, Inc. Plaintiff's complaint asserted a cause of action under the Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/0.01 et seq. (West 1998)) based on defendants' alleged negligence in the construction of a Wal-Mart store. The sole issue presented in this appeal is whether the four-year statute of limitations period in section 13--214(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/13--214(a) (West 1998)) or the two-year limitations period in section 2 of the Wrongful Death Act (Act) (740 ILCS 180/2 (West 1998)) applies to plaintiff's cause of action. Because we find that the Act's two-year statute of limitations applies, we affirm the judgment of the circuit court.

BACKGROUND

On April 27, 1999, plaintiff, acting as the special administrator of her deceased husband's estate, filed a complaint against defendants. According to the allegations in plaintiff's complaint, in September 1996, defendants were involved in the construction of a Wal-Mart store in De Kalb, Illinois. Defendant E.W. Howell Company, Inc. (Howell), a contractor on the project, hired Area Construction Trades, Inc. (Area Construction), to provide the store with a roof. Plaintiff's decedent was employed as a roofer by Area Construction. On September 24, 1996, while working on the Wal-Mart project, plaintiff's decedent fell from the structural steel framework of the building. As a result of the injuries sustained in the fall, plaintiff's decedent died later the same day.

Plaintiff's complaint asserted a cause of action under the Act based on defendants' alleged negligence in the construction of the Wal-Mart store. The Wal-Mart defendants and defendant Howell each moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to section 2--619(a)(5) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2--619(a)(5) (West 1998)). Defendants urged the trial court to dismiss plaintiff's claim because she did not commence the action within two years after her husband's death as required by section 2 of the Act (740 ILCS 180/2 (West 1998)). In response to defendants' motions, plaintiff claimed that the four-year limitations period for construction-related actions found in section 13--214(a) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/13--214(a) (West 1998)) applied because it was more specific than the Act's two-year limitations period. On January 27, 2000, the trial court granted defendants' motions to dismiss, but allowed plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint.

Plaintiff filed her amended complaint on February 15, 2000. The amended pleading alleged for the first time that it was not until July 1, 1997, that plaintiff discovered "factually specific information relative to the circumstances of decedent's fall" so as to alert her "to the need for further inquiries to determine if the cause of the decedent's injury was actionable at law." The amended complaint did not allege the specific facts made available on July 1, 1997. In response, the Wal-Mart defendants and defendant Howell each filed a section 2--619 motion to dismiss. Defendants again asserted that plaintiff did not timely file her complaint under section 2 of the Act. Defendants also claimed that plaintiff's attempt to extend the limitations period by invoking the discovery rule was improper. Defendants reasoned that plaintiff's decedent's injuries were the result of a sudden and traumatic event and, as such, the cause of action accrued at the time the injuries occurred. On May 4, 2000, the trial court granted defendants' motions and dismissed plaintiff's amended complaint. The court also found that the discovery rule was not applicable to the case. Nevertheless, the court granted plaintiff leave to file a second amended complaint.

Plaintiff filed her second amended complaint on June 21, 2000. The second amended complaint stated that at no time prior to July 1, 1997, did plaintiff "have facts sufficient to know or have reason to know that a third party may have negligently caused [her husband's] death." Plaintiff added that on or about July 1, 1997, she spoke over the telephone to a previously unavailable witness from the construction site who possessed factually specific information relative to the circumstances of decedent's fall. Plaintiff, however, did not disclose the substance of her conversation with the undisclosed witness. Defendants filed a joint section 2--619 motion to dismiss on the basis that plaintiff's action was time-barred. On September 11, 2000, the trial court granted defendants' motion and dismissed plaintiff's complaint with prejudice. In so ruling, the court reiterated that the discovery rule was not applicable. This appeal followed.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

The purpose of a motion to dismiss under section 2--619 is to dispose of issues of law and easily proved issues of fact. Tatara v. Peterson Diving Service, 283 Ill. App. 3d 1031, 1037 (1996). We must accept all well-pleaded facts in the motion as well as reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts. Wolf v. Buesser, 279 Ill. App. 3d 217, 221 (1996). Our review of a trial court order granting a motion to dismiss is de novo. Greb v. Forest Preserve District of Cook County, 323 Ill. App. 3d 461, 463 (2001).

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff argues that the trial court erred in applying the two-year statute of limitations found in section 2 of the Act (740 ILCS 180/2 (West 1998)). According to plaintiff, the four-year statute of limitations found in section 13--214(a) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/13--214(a) (West 1998)) applies to her cause of action. Plaintiff notes that her husband was killed in a construction-related accident and that section 13--214 addresses the limitations period for construction-related actions. Thus, she reasons that the "specific" statute of limitation found in section 13--214 should prevail over the "general" statute of limitations found in section 2 of the Act.

The issue raised in this case is one of statutory construction. The primary rule of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. People v. Owens, 323 Ill. App. 3d 222, 228 (2001). Plaintiff's argument rests on the premise that either section 13--214(a) of the Code or section 2 of the Act could apply to her cause of action. We do not dispute that, when two limitations periods are applicable to a particular action, the more specific statute generally applies. See Tosado v. Miller, 188 Ill. 2d 186, 191 (1999); Roark v. Macoupin Creek District, 316 Ill. App. 3d 835, 842 (2000). However, where there is an alleged conflict between two statutes, a court has a duty to interpret the statutes in a manner that avoids an inconsistency and gives effect to both statutes, where such an interpretation is reasonably possible. McNamee v. Federated Equipment & Supply Co., 181 Ill. 2d 415, 427 (1998). We determine that plaintiff's argument is based on a misunderstanding of the function of the Act and its interplay with the limitations period found in section 13--214(a) of the Code.

Essentially, plaintiff attempts to treat her wrongful death complaint as if it were a claim under the Survival Act (755 ILCS 5/27--6 (West 1998)). However, the purposes of the two statutes are different. The Survival Act allows a decedent's survivors to recover damages for injuries suffered by the decedent prior to death. Wyness v. Armstrong World Industries, Inc., 131 Ill. 2d 403, 410 (1989). However, plaintiff's complaint is one for wrongful death. A wrongful death action allows a recovery for damages because of the loss of the deceased. Wyness, 131 Ill. 2d at 410. In other words, the purpose of the Act is to compensate the surviving spouse and next of kin for the pecuniary losses sustained due to the decedent's death. Mio v. Alberto-Culver Co., 306 Ill. App. 3d 822, 825 (1999).

Also insightful to our analysis is an examination of the history of the Act. A cause of action for wrongful death did not exist at common law. Rallo v. Crossroads Clinic, Inc., 206 Ill. App. 3d 676, 680 (1990). In adopting the Act, the General Assembly created a separate and independent cause of action for damages arising from a decedent's wrongful death. Mio, 306 Ill. App. 3d at 825; see also Wyness, 131 Ill. 2d at 413 (noting that the Act created a new cause of action). As a creature of legislative enactment, the Act itself is the source for determining who may sue and ...


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