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Thomas Vincent v. Ald En-Park Strathmoor

March 24, 2011

THOMAS VINCENT,
APPELLANT,
v.
ALD EN-PARK STRATHMOOR, INC.,
APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Karmeier

JUSTICE KARMEIER delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Chief Justice Kilbride and Justices Thomas, Garman, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.

Justice Freeman took no part in the decision.

OPINION

This interlocutory appeal under Supreme Court Rule 308 (Ill. S. Ct. R. 308 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010)) presents a single question of law: Does a claim for punitive damages based on allegations of willful and wanton violation of the Nursing Home Care Act (210 ILCS 45/1--101 et seq. (West 2006)) survive the death of the nursing home resident on whose behalf the cause of action was brought? The circuit court concluded that when the nursing home resident died, any claim she might have had for punitive damages abated. The appellate court agreed. 399 Ill. App. 3d 1102. We granted a petition by the representative of the nursing home resident's estate for leave to appeal. Ill. S. Ct. R. 315 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010). For the reasons that follow, we now affirm and remand to the circuit court for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

Marjorie Vincent died in December of 2006 while a resident of Alden-Park Strathmoor, a long-term care facility in Rockford. Following her death, Thomas Vincent, the legal representative of her estate (hereinafter plaintiff), filed a three-count complaint against Alden-Park Strathmoor (sometimes referred to herein as the facility) in the circuit court of Winnebago County. Count I sought damages from the facility on the theory that it had breached its duty under the Nursing Home Care Act to refrain from neglecting or abusing Marjorie and that it had failed to provide her with adequate medical or personal care or maintenance. According to the complaint, Alden-Park Strathmoor's breach of duty caused Marjorie to suffer "permanent and disabling injuries, resulting in loss of a normal life, disfigurement, pain, suffering and anguish" and, ultimately, in her death.

Count III was predicated on the Nursing Home Care Act as well. It alleged the same acts and omissions set forth in count I, but made the additional charge that Alden-Park Strathmoor, "by and through its agents, servants, employees and/or representatives," had acted "with conscious or reckless disregard for Marjorie['s] health and safety" and that its misconduct was willful and wanton. Count II was also based on the same acts and omissions set forth in count I. Unlike counts I and III, however, it was based on common law negligence principles rather than violation of the Nursing Home Care Act.

All three counts of plaintiff's complaint requested compensatory damages in excess of $50,000. Count II requested those damages under the Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/1 et seq. (West 2006)) to compensate Marjorie's three sons for the pecuniary losses they suffered as a result of her death. Counts I and III, which sought recovery for violations of the Nursing Home Care Act, were brought by plaintiff in his capacity as representative of Marjorie's estate pursuant to the Survival Act (755 ILCS 5/27--6 (West 2006)). Those counts demanded that defendant be required to pay actual damages based on principles of vicarious liability pursuant to section 3--601 of the Nursing Home Care Act (210 ILCS 45/3--601 (West 2006)). They also prayed for an award of statutory costs and attorneys fees under section 3--602 of the Act (210 ILCS 45/3--602 (West 2006)).

Although count III of plaintiff's complaint alleged willful and wanton misconduct, it did not request an award of punitive damages. It could not. Causes of action asserted under the Nursing Home Care Act are governed by article II of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2--101 et seq. (West 2000)), also known as the Civil Practice Law (735 ILCS 5/1--101(b) (West 2000)), and by the Illinois Supreme Court rules on civil proceedings in the trial court. Eads v. Heritage Enterprises, Inc., 204 Ill. 2d 92, 99 (2003). Under section 2--604.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2--604.1 (West 2006)), plaintiffs asserting causes of action for bodily injury or physical damage to property based on negligence, or on products liability based on any theory or doctrine, are not permitted to include in their complaints a prayer for relief seeking punitive damages.*fn1 That is so even where punitive damages are permitted by law. If a plaintiff wishes to pursue a claim for punitive damages, the law requires him or her to first seek leave of court to amend his or her complaint to add a prayer for such damages. A court may allow the amendment only when a plaintiff has established at a hearing that he or she has "a reasonable likelihood of proving facts at trial sufficient to support an award of punitive damages." 735 ILCS 5/2--604.1 (West 2006).

While plaintiff did not include a prayer for punitive damages in count III of his complaint, he did state in that count that he was reserving the "right to bring a claim for punitive damages upon proper motion and order pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/2--604.1 [(West 2006)]." Without waiting to see if plaintiff would make such a motion, Alden-Park Strathmoor filed a hybrid motion to dismiss or for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to section 2--619.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2--619.1 (West 2006)).

As grounds for seeking dismissal, Alden-Park Strathmoor asserted that a report from a health professional submitted by plaintiff in support of his wrongful-death claim was insufficient under section 2--622 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2--622 (West 2006)).*fn2 With respect to the pleadings, Alden-Park Strathmoor asked the court to strike the provision in count III purporting to reserve the right to pursue a claim for punitive damages. It argued that, as a matter of Illinois law, punitive damages do not survive the death of the person whose injuries serve as the basis for a cause of action brought pursuant to the Survival Act. Because Marjorie, the person injured in this case, had died, Alden-Park Strathmoor contended that there were no circumstances under which plaintiff's claim for punitive damages could be sustained.

The circuit court rejected Alden-Park Strathmoor's assertion that the health professional's report filed by plaintiff failed to meet the requirements of section 2--622, and that issue is no longer in dispute. The circuit court agreed with the facility, however, that plaintiff could never recover punitive damages based on violation of the Nursing Home Care Act given that Marjorie was deceased. It therefore struck from plaintiff's complaint his request to reserve the right to pursue a claim for punitive damages.

On plaintiff's motion, the circuit court made a written finding that its order involved a question of law as to which there was substantial ground for difference of opinion and that an immediate appeal would materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation. Plaintiff then petitioned the appellate court for leave to appeal under Supreme Court Rule 308 (Ill. S. Ct. R. 308 (eff. Feb. 26, 2010)). The appellate court granted plaintiff's petition, but rejected his argument that Marjorie's death should not preclude him from seeking punitive damages based on alleged willful and wanton violations of the Nursing Home Care Act in connection with Marjorie's care. Reviewing the applicable statutory provisions, legislative history, judicial precedent and equitable considerations, the appellate court concluded any right to punitive damages in this case abated with Marjorie's death. ...


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