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Cochran v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc.

Supreme Court of Illinois

September 21, 2017


          JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Freeman, Kilbride, Garman, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 The issue in this case is whether a plaintiff bringing a cause of action for tortious interference with the right to possess a corpse must allege facts showing that such interference resulted from the defendant security company's wilful and wanton misconduct. For the reasons that follow, we hold that no such allegations are necessary and that recovery in such cases is permissible upon a showing of ordinary negligence.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 This appeal arises from an order granting defendant's combined motion to dismiss plaintiff's third amended complaint, brought pursuant to section 2-619.1 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619.1 (West 2014)). We therefore take the following facts from that complaint and accept them as true for purposes of our review. See Wackrow v. Niemi, 231 Ill.2d 418, 420 (2008).

         ¶ 4 On September 12, 2010, Walter Andrew Cochran died in his home at the age of 39. On September 14, 2010, Walter's body was transported to the Moultrie County morgue, where the coroner was unable to determine the cause of Walter's death. Later that same day, Walter's body was transferred to Memorial Medical Center in Springfield (Memorial) for a full autopsy. Upon arrival at Memorial, Walter's body was received by employees of defendant, Securitas Security Services, USA, Inc. Defendant is a private security firm that had contracted with Memorial to provide certain security services at the hospital, including the receiving, tracking, and releasing of bodies processed by Memorial's morgue. Upon receiving Walter's body at the morgue, defendant's employees placed it in a Ziegler case, which is a closed steel case used to store severely decomposed remains. Defendant's employees did not place a visible identification tag on Walter's body, nor did they affix an identification label to the Ziegler case containing Walter's body. Defendant's employees also erroneously recorded in the morgue's logbook that the body contained in the Ziegler case was that of a man named William Carroll. Two days later, on September 16, 2010, representatives from Butler Funeral Home (Butler) arrived at Memorial's morgue to collect William Carroll's body. Relying solely on the erroneous logbook entry, and without conducting any visual inspection of the body, defendant's employees provided Butler with Walter's body, rather than with William Carroll's body. Before the error could be discovered, Butler left Memorial with Walter's body and had it cremated. As a result, no autopsy was ever performed on Walter's body, and no cause of death was ever determined.

         ¶ 5 Plaintiff, Donna Cochran, is Walter's mother. In September 2012, acting both in her individual capacity and as the independent administrator of Walter's estate, plaintiff brought a seven-count complaint against defendant, Memorial, and Butler for various claims relating to the wrongful cremation of Walter's body. In June 2015, after settling her claims with both Memorial and Butler, plaintiff filed a third amended complaint against defendant alleging one count of tortious interference with plaintiff's right to possess Walter's body. According to the third amended complaint, defendant and its employees had a duty not to interfere with plaintiff's right to possess and make appropriate disposition of Walter's body. Plaintiff alleged that defendant and its employees breached this duty by, among other things, failing to follow industry standards and hospital policies governing the identification and processing of dead bodies, failing to maintain an accurate log of the identity and location of bodies in the Memorial morgue, relying solely on an inaccurate logbook when releasing the body to Butler, releasing to Butler a body that lacked an identification tag, releasing to Butler a body that did not match the description of the body being claimed, and releasing to Butler the wrong body. Plaintiff further alleged that, as a proximate result of these acts and omissions, she experienced and suffered severe emotional distress, mental suffering, embarrassment, humiliation, and financial losses.

         ¶ 6 In July 2015, defendant filed a section 2-619.1 combined motion to dismiss the third amended complaint. The combined motion first sought dismissal under section 2-619 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2014)) on the grounds that plaintiff "ignore[d] both the facts known to her and her counsel at the time of the filing of her pleading in violation of Illinois Supreme Court Rule 137 and the pleading requirements of a cause of action for interference with the right to possession of the body of a decedent under Illinois law." More specifically, defendant's motion argued that, at the time she filed the third amended complaint, plaintiff knew that (1) Memorial was the only entity that was legally authorized to release Walter's body to Butler, (2) Memorial bore sole legal responsibility for establishing procedures for the handling and release of bodies in its morgue, (3)defendant had no legal authority to release a body from Memorial's morgue, (4)defendant did not physically remove or transport Walter's body from the Memorial morgue, (5) Butler erroneously signed for Walter's body at the Memorial morgue, (6) Butler erroneously removed Walter's body from the Memorial morgue, and (7) Butler erroneously cremated Walter's body after erroneously removing it from the morgue. The motion next sought dismissal under section 2-615 of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 2014)) on the grounds that plaintiff failed to allege sufficient facts showing that (1) defendant owed a duty to plaintiff, (2) defendant's conduct was wilful and wanton, (3) defendant's conduct was a proximate cause of plaintiff's claimed damages, and (4) emotional distress damages are recoverable in this type of case. Following a hearing, the circuit court of Sangamon County granted defendant's motion and dismissed the third amended complaint with prejudice. In doing so, the court explained that dismissal was warranted under section 2-615 because plaintiff "failed to plead sufficient facts to support the allegation of duty owed by the Defendant *** to the Plaintiff" and under section 2-619 because "there *** is no set of facts by which the Plaintiff may demonstrate" such a duty.

         ¶ 7 Plaintiff appealed, and the appellate court reversed. 2016 IL App (4th) 150791. The appellate court first held that the trial court erred in granting the section 2-619 portion of defendant's motion to dismiss both because it was not supported by the requisite affidavits and because it was effectively a section 2-615 motion to dismiss, in that it attacked the legal sufficiency of plaintiff's claim instead of raising an affirmative defense to that claim. Id. ¶¶ 24, 27. The appellate court then held that the trial court also erred in granting the section 2-615 portion of plaintiff's motion to dismiss. Specifically, the appellate court rejected defendant's argument that, in order to state a claim for tortious interference with the right to possess a corpse, a plaintiff must plead specific facts demonstrating that the defendant's misconduct was wilful and wanton. Rather, the appellate court explained, the emerging standard is that such a claim may be brought on an allegation of ordinary negligence, which plaintiff's third amended complaint adequately set forth. Id. ¶¶ 52, 61. Accordingly, the appellate court reversed the trial court's judgment dismissing plaintiff's third amended complaint and remanded the cause for further proceedings. Id. ¶¶ 53, 63.

         ¶ 8 We granted defendant's petition for leave to appeal (Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. Mar. 15, 2016)).

         ¶ 9 DISCUSSION

         ¶ 10 Though defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff's third amended complaint under both section 2-615 and section 2-619 of the Code, it now defends only the section 2-615 portion of its motion, insisting that "there is no need for this Court to address the section 2-619 motion." Accordingly, we confine our analysis to section 2-615.

         ¶ 11 A motion to dismiss under section 2-615 challenges the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Kanerva v. Weems, 2014 IL 115811, ¶ 33. In ruling on such a motion, a court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts in the complaint, as well as any reasonable inferences that may arise from them. Id. The essential question 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. Id. A cause of action should not be dismissed under section 2-615 unless it is clearly apparent from the pleadings that no set of facts can be proven that would entitle the plaintiff to recover. Id. Our review of an order granting a section 2-615 motion to dismiss is de novo. Id.

         ¶ 12 Plaintiff's third amended complaint alleges one count of tortious interference with the right to possess Walter's corpse. This cause of action has a settled place in Illinois law, and it rests upon the principle that "while in the ordinary sense, there is no property right in a dead body, a right of possession of a decedent's remains devolves upon the next of kin in order to make appropriate disposition thereof, whether by burial or otherwise." Leno v. St. Joseph Hospital, 55 Ill.2d 114, 117 (1973). For more than a century, Illinois courts have recognized that interference with this right is an actionable wrong and that the plaintiff in such cases is entitled to recover damages for the mental suffering that is proximately caused by the defendant's misconduct. See Drakeford v. University of Chicago Hospitals, 2013 IL App (1st) 111366, ¶ 14; Rekosh v. Parks, 316 Ill.App.3d 58, 68 (2000); Kelso v. Watson, 204 Ill.App.3d 727, 731 (1990); Hearon v. City of Chicago, 157 Ill.App.3d 633, 637 (1987); Courtney v. St. Joseph Hospital, 149 Ill.App.3d 397, 398 (1986); Mensinger v. O'Hara, 189 Ill.App. 48, 55 (1914).

         ¶ 13 The question in this case is whether, to state a cause of action, a plaintiff alleging tortious interference with the right to possess a corpse must allege facts showing that the defendant's misconduct was wilful and wanton. Historically, this has been considered the case in Illinois, and our appellate court routinely treats the wilful and wanton standard as settled law. See, e.g., Drakeford, 2013 IL App (1st) 111366, ¶ 14; Rekosh, 316 Ill.App.3d at 68; Kelso, 204 Ill.App.3d at 731; Hearon, 157 Ill.App.3d at 637; Courtney, 149 Ill.App.3d at 398. The curious thing about this is that, with one notable exception, [1] each of these decisions relies either directly or indirectly upon Mensinger as the source of the wilful and wanton standard, despite the fact that Mensinger expressly declined to adopt that standard in this context. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the establishment of the wilful and wanton ...

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