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Vitro v. Mihelcic

January 23, 2004

[5] MEL VITRO ET AL., INDIV. AND AS PARENTS AND GUARDIANS OF DOROTHY VITRO, A MINOR, APPELLANTS,
v.
ALICE S. MIHELCIC, M.D., ET AL., APPELLEES.



[6] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Justice McMORROW

[7]  Docket No. 94231-Agenda 01/15/2004

[8]  The question presented in this appeal is whether a parent may recover for loss of the society and companionship of a child who is non-fatally injured. Under Illinois law, such a claim may be brought in a wrongful-death action. Bullard v. Barnes, 102 Ill. 2d 505 (1984). However, in Dralle v. Ruder, 124 Ill. 2d 61 (1988), we declined to extend the filial society cause of action to those situations where the child is non-fatally injured. For the reasons set forth below, we adhere to our decision in Dralle and refrain from enlarging the scope of liability to encompass claims where the child is non-fatally injured.

[9]  BACKGROUND

[10]   Plaintiffs Mel Vitro and Sabrina Short Vitro, acting individually and as parents and guardians of their minor daughter, Dorothy, filed a medical malpractice action in the circuit court of Du Page County against defendants Alice S. Mihelcic, M.D., and Naperville Associates in Obstetrics and Gynecology, Ltd. (Naperville Associates). The complaint alleged that Mihelcic, while in the course and scope of her employment with Naperville Associates, negligently managed Sabrina's labor and the delivery of Dorothy, thereby causing Dorothy severe brain damage. The complaint further alleged that, as a result of her neurological injuries, Dorothy will suffer cognitive deficits and physical disabilities for the rest of her life. Count I of the three-count complaint sought damages for Dorothy's injuries, and the second count, which was brought pursuant to the Rights of Married Persons Act (750 ILCS 65/15 (West 2000)), sought compensation for medical and caretaking expenses incurred by the parents. In count III, the only count at issue in this appeal, plaintiffs alleged a loss of filial consortium with their daughter as a result of her injuries, and sought damages for this disruption of the family relationship.

[11]   Defendants moved to dismiss count III pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2000)) on the ground that Illinois does not recognize such a claim. Defendants pointed to Dralle and argued that, under this decision, parents may not claim loss of consortium damages for nonfatal injuries to a child. In response to the motion to dismiss, plaintiffs acknowledged that Dralle bars parental loss of consortium claims where the child's injuries are nonfatal. However, plaintiffs argued that the Dralle decision was poorly reasoned and should be reconsidered.

[12]   The circuit court granted defendants' motion to dismiss count III and found, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 304(a) (155 Ill. 2d R. 304(a)), that there was no just cause to delay enforcement or appeal of the dismissal. On appeal, plaintiffs urged the appellate court "to criticize the rule pronounced in Dralle because the analysis is flawed and inconsistent with existing Illinois law." The appellate court declined the request, noting that "pursuant to controlling authority, plaintiff parents may not bring a claim against defendants for loss of consortium for the nonfatal injuries to their child Dorothy." In a summary order, the appellate court affirmed the circuit court's dismissal of count III of the complaint. No. 2-01-0148 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We allowed plaintiffs' petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315.

[13]   ANALYSIS

[14]   A motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2000)) attacks the legal sufficiency of a complaint by alleging defects on the face of the complaint. American National Bank & Trust Co. v. City of Chicago, 192 Ill. 2d 274, 279 (2000); Weatherman v. Gary-Wheaton Bank, 186 Ill. 2d 472, 491 (1999). In ruling on a section 2-615 motion, a court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint and all reasonable inferences therefrom. American National Bank, 192 Ill. 2d at 279; Weatherman, 186 Ill. 2d at 491. The critical inquiry is whether the allegations of the complaint, when construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, are sufficient to establish a cause of action upon which relief may be granted. Jarvis v. South Oak Dodge, Inc., 201 Ill. 2d 81, 86 (2002); Weatherman, 186 Ill. 2d at 491. We review an order granting a section 2-615 motion to dismiss de novo. Wakulich v. Mraz, 203 Ill. 2d 223, 228 (2003); Stroger v. Regional Transportation Authority, 201 Ill. 2d 508, 516 (2002).

[15]   In the case at bar, as noted, count III of plaintiffs' complaint seeks damages for loss of filial consortium resulting from their daughter's nonfatal injuries. The same claim was rejected in Dralle. Accordingly, both the circuit and the appellate courts held that count III of plaintiffs' complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

[16]   Plaintiffs argue, however, that Dralle was incorrectly decided, and they urge us to overrule that decision. Plaintiffs' contention that Dralle should be overruled implicates stare decisis. The doctrine of stare decisis "expresses the policy of the courts to stand by precedents and not to disturb settled points." Neff v. George, 364 Ill. 306, 308-09 (1936), overruled on other grounds by Tuthill v. Rendelman, 387 Ill. 321 (1944). This doctrine "is the means by which courts ensure that the law will not merely change erratically, but will develop in a principled and intelligible fashion." Chicago Bar Ass'n v. Illinois State Board of Elections, 161 Ill. 2d 502, 510 (1994). Stare decisis enables both the people and the bar of this state "to rely upon [this court's] decisions with assurance that they will not be lightly overruled." Moehle v. Chrysler Motors Corp., 93 Ill. 2d 299, 304 (1982).

[17]   To be sure, stare decisis is not an inexorable command. Chicago Bar Ass'n, 161 Ill. 2d at 510; Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 842, 115 L. Ed. 2d 720, 746, 111 S. Ct. 2597, 2617 (1991) (Souter, J., concurring). However, we have consistently held that any departure from stare decisis must be specially justified (Chicago Bar Ass'n, 161 Ill. 2d at 510) and that prior decisions should not be overruled absent "good cause" (Moehle, 93 Ill. 2d at 304; Heimgaertner v. Benjamin Electric Manufacturing Co., 6 Ill. 2d 152, 166-67 (1955)) or "compelling reasons" (Moehle, 93 Ill. 2d at 304; People v. Robinson, 187 Ill. 2d 461, 463-64 (1999)). This court also has recognized that "it will not depart from precedent `merely because the court is of the opinion that it might decide otherwise were the question a new one.' " Robinson, 187 Ill. 2d at 463-64, quoting Maki v. Frelk, 40 Ill. 2d 193, 196-97 (1968). In sum, "when a rule of law has once been settled, contravening no statute or constitutional principle, such rule ought to be followed unless it can be shown that serious detriment is thereby likely to arise prejudicial to public interests." Maki, 40 Ill. 2d at 196; see also Heidenreich v. Bremner, 260 Ill. 439, 450-51 (1913).

[18]   In Dralle, as in the case at bar, the question was whether the parents of a child born with maladies that included brain damage could recover for loss of their child's society and companionship. According to the complaint in Dralle, the child's injuries were caused, in part, by the mother's use during pregnancy of the prescription drug Bendectin. The four-count complaint also alleged negligence on the part of the obstetricians. In count IV of the Dralle complaint, the parents sought compensation from the drug's manufacturer for loss of filial society resulting from their child's injuries. The trial court dismissed count IV for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted.

[19]   The appellate court reversed the dismissal order, concluding that Illinois recognized a parent's claim for loss of companionship and society resulting from nonfatal injuries to a child. Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 63. The defendant drug manufacturer appealed, and this court reversed, holding that a parent may not recover for loss of society and companionship of a non-fatally injured child. Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 71.

[20]   In Bullard v. Barnes, 102 Ill. 2d 505 (1984), decided prior to Dralle, this court held that, in a wrongful-death action, parents are entitled to a presumption of pecuniary injury in the loss of a deceased child's society and companionship. *fn1 Bullard, 102 Ill. 2d at 517. In Dralle, the parents argued that it would be a logical extension of Bullard to allow recovery for loss of filial society arising from a child's nonfatal injuries. The court in Dralle rejected this argument, explaining that there is an important distinction between the two types of claims. Where a child is non-fatally injured, the court noted, the child retains his or her own cause of action against the tortfeasor. "Thus, there is no danger that the injury caused by the tortfeasor will go uncompensated, or that similar conduct in the future will be undeterred." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 69. By contrast, "an action under the Wrongful Death Act affords the sole remedy for the surviving family members." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 69. In Dralle's view, it therefore makes sense to allow recovery for loss of filial society in actions under the Wrongful Death Act, but not where the victim survives and retains his or her own cause of action. *fn2 The court also pointed to a second relevant distinction between Bullard and the nonfatal-injury case. In Bullard, the decision to allow claims for loss of filial society was based on an already-existing statutory foundation: the wrongful death statute. Where the loss of society results from nonfatal injuries to the child, there is no such statutory foundation. The court in Dralle also rejected the argument that our decision in Dini v. Naiditch, 20 Ill. 2d 406 (1960), supported the recognition of a filial society claim where injuries are nonfatal. Dini held that, just as a husband may claim loss of spousal consortium arising from nonfatal injuries to his wife, so also a wife may make the same claim where her husband is non-fatally injured. Consortium, in this context, "includes, in addition to material services, elements of companionship, felicity and sexual intercourse, all welded into a conceptualistic unity." Dini, 20 Ill. 2d at 427. In Dralle it was argued that, since this court had already recognized claims for loss of spousal consortium arising from nonfatal injuries, it was but a small step to recognize claims for loss of filial society where the child's injuries were nonfatal. The court in Dralle rejected this argument, explaining that "[t]he companionship and society for which recovery is sought [in a filial society claim] is not identical with the spousal claim recognized in Dini." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 72. Dralle asserted that spousal consortium includes elements that "are absent from the parent-child relationship." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 72. For this reason, the court "decline[d] to find in the action for spousal consortium a basis for recognizing recovery of loss of filial society." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 72.

[21]   The court in Dralle noted several "policy considerations" that argue against recognition of the new filial society claim, including "the appropriate scope of tort liability" and the difficulty in assessing damages. Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 69-70. According to Dralle, "[t]o recognize claims for loss of society resulting from nonfatal injuries to a child would threaten a considerable enlargement of liability.

[22]   [Citations.] Grandparents, siblings, and friends suffering similar losses of society and companionship would also seek to bring claims, if recovery were to go unchecked." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 70. The Dralle court was also concerned with the difficulty in assessing damages. Noting the intangible nature of the loss, Dralle asserted that "a trier of fact would find it difficult to distinguish between the child's claim, involving pain and suffering, and the legally distinct but factually similar claim by the parents for loss of the child's society and companionship." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 70. This difficulty, the court concluded, would invite duplicate recoveries.

[23]   In a special concurrence, *fn3 Justice Clark criticized the majority's reasoning. While the majority concluded that Bullard and Dini did not support the recognition of a cause of action for loss of filial society resulting from nonfatal injuries, Justice Clark came to a different conclusion. In Justice Clark's view, these and other decisions of this court, "together with cases on point from other jurisdictions [citations], *** strongly suggest that we should allow recovery to a parent who, through nonfatal injury, suffers the loss of his child's society." Dralle, 124 Ill. 2d at 75-76 (Clark, J., ...


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