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Pratt-Holdampf v. Trinity Medical Center

May 12, 2003


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit, Rock Island County, Illinois. No. 00-L-29 Honorable Martin E. Conway, Jr., Judge, Presiding.

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


Plaintiff, Debra A. Pratt-Holdampf, appeals from an order of dismissal with prejudice granted by the circuit court of Rock Island County to Trinity Medical Center and other defendants. Because plaintiff's original complaint was improperly dismissed, we reverse and remand.


This appeal stems from events surrounding the death of Robert Guinn. On January 18, 1998, Robert suffered a stroke. He was taken to the emergency room at the Trinity Medical Center (Trinity) in Rock Island, Illinois, where he died hours later. Surviving Robert were his wife, Mary Guinn, and three adult children, Debra A. Pratt-Holdampf, Denise R. Dreifurst and Jessica L. Guinn. Following the subsequent death of Mary, the Whiteside County probate court appointed plaintiff as special administrator of Robert's estate. Plaintiff was not an attorney licensed to practice law in Illinois or in any other jurisdiction.

Believing Robert's death may have been wrongfully caused by Trinity and its attending medical staff, plaintiff consulted with an attorney, Richard Dahl, who was licensed in Illinois but residing out of the state. Pursuant to his instruction and his assurance that the complaint could always be amended by an attorney at a later date, plaintiff escaped the bar of the statute of limitations by filing, on February 8, 2000, a pro se complaint and statutorily required medical report alleging medical malpractice against Trinity and other defendants. In her complaint, plaintiff alleged that defendants negligently delayed the diagnosis of Robert's medical condition and that the resulting delay in treatment caused his death. Plaintiff further asserted that defendants were also negligent in failing to administer proper care, thereby effectively hastening Robert's death. No summons issued at the time the complaint was filed and no defendant was then served.

Two months later, and prior to any response by defendants, an appearance was filed on plaintiff's behalf by Thomas Pastrnak, a licensed Illinois attorney. Pastrnak caused the summons and complaint to be served on the defendants. He later withdrew citing a conflict of interest. In granting the motion to withdraw on July 17, 2000, the court ordered defendants to proceed with plaintiff pro se if she was unable to secure counsel within 21 days. Supplemental appearances on behalf of plaintiff were filed by Dahl and other licensed Illinois attorneys. It appears that plaintiff was represented by counsel at every stage of the proceedings, including service of process, subsequent to the initial filing.

Defendants had filed motions to dismiss and strike and addenda thereto from May through August 2000, but none had been ruled on. On January 18, 2001, Trinity filed a supplemental motion pursuant to section 2-619 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2000)), requesting dismissal of plaintiff's complaint. Other defendants joined in this motion. In support, defendants relied on the newly decided case of Ratcliffe v. Apantaku, 318 Ill. App. 3d 621, 742 N.E.2d 843 (2000), to argue for the first time that the original complaint filed by plaintiff, a non-attorney special administrator, was a nullity, and thus, no valid complaint had ever been filed.

Plaintiff responded that she filed the complaint not only as the special administrator but also on "behalf of herself and her two sisters." She also claimed to have made reasonable and diligent efforts to secure counsel to file the original complaint and noted that all subsequent pleadings were made by Illinois attorneys who had supplementally appeared and filed responses to the motions.

On May 10, 2001, following three changes of judge pursuant to plaintiff's allegations of conflict, a hearing was held on defendants' motions. The trial court determined that plaintiff, as the special administrator of decedent's estate, could not file a valid complaint for wrongful death because she was not an attorney. Plaintiff's original complaint was found to be void ab initio and was dismissed without prejudice. On May 31, in response to plaintiff's motion for leave to file an amended complaint and defendants' objections to the filing, the court modified its May 10 order to deny leave to file an amended complaint, but gave plaintiff leave to file a new complaint within 14 days. This order also required issuance and service of summons.

Also on May 31, plaintiff filed a memorandum in support of her motion to file the amended complaint, asserting that the original complaint had been filed in February 2000 but not served until April 2000, after attorney Pastrnak entered his appearance and effected the service without making any change to the existing complaint. Plaintiff claimed that the attorney's actions constituted adoption and ratification, thereby validating the wrongful death action - if it had ever been invalid -- and eliminating the statutory concern that no attorney was involved. Defendants responded to this assertion, but there was no ruling.

On June 25, 2001, there was a hearing in which the court sought to clarify the various issues on the record. It found that plaintiff filed her pro se complaint in her capacity as special administrator of her father's estate and that complaint was, by law, a nullity and void ab initio. After reviewing the contents of the complaint, it further found that the complaint on behalf of plaintiff's sisters was also a nullity and void from the moment of its filing. Those claims were dismissed without prejudice. It also found that the action was brought by plaintiff in both her capacity as special administrator and individually. It dismissed the individual claim without prejudice and granted leave to file an amended complaint. Plaintiff filed her amended complaint that same day. The rulings made at the June 25 hearing were reduced to writing and a written order was filed on July 17, 2001, which permitted Pratt to amend the complaint within 30 days of June 26, 2001.

Thereafter, defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint which had been filed on June 25, claiming that it did not comply with the statute of limitations, challenging the physician's certificate of merit, and otherwise attacking the merits of the complaint.

In responding to the limitations challenge in these motions, plaintiff asserted that her June 25 amended complaint should, pursuant to section 2-616 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-616 (West 2000)), relate back to the original filing of February 8, 2000. Defendant Trinity replied, attacking both the relation back argument and the ...

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