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Lawler v. University of Chicago Medical Center

Supreme Court of Illinois

November 30, 2017

SHERI LAWLER, Appellee,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO MEDICAL CENTER, et al., Appellants.

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

          OPINION

          FREEMAN JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 In this case, we consider whether the relation back statute (735 ILCS 5/2-616(b) (West 2010)) applies to a wrongful death claim when the death occurs more than four years after the alleged act of negligence. Plaintiff, Sheri Lawler, filed an amended complaint alleging a wrongful death claim against defendants, numerous medical providers. Defendants sought to dismiss the claim as time-barred by the four-year medical malpractice statute of repose. 735 ILCS 5/13-212(a) (West 2010). The circuit court of Cook County granted defendants' motions. However, on appeal, the appellate court reversed. 2016 IL App (1st) 143189. For the following reasons, we affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 This case is before us on the pleadings. Jill Prusak, decedent, filed a two-count complaint on August 4, 2011, alleging medical malpractice against Dr. Rama D. Jager, University Retina and Macula Associates, P.C. (University Retina), and numerous University of Chicago and Advocate medical providers.[1] The complaint alleged that from November 5, 2007, through July 2009, Prusak received medical care and treatment from Dr. Jager for "flashes, spots and floaters in her eyes." On August 7, 2009, she underwent a brain biopsy that showed she had central nervous system lymphoma. She alleged that Dr. Jager was negligent in the following ways:

"a) [f]ailed to order appropriate diagnostic testing on November 5th, 2007 for a patient with bilateral metamorphopsia and visual acuity that could not be corrected to normal levels in either eyes [sic];
b)[f]ailed to diagnose macular pathology, and
c) [f]ailed to perform appropriate medical evaluation of a 47 year old patient with macular pathology and no known systemic illness."

         Count I was directed against numerous University of Chicago medical providers and asserted that Dr. Jager was their agent, employee, or apparent agent. Count II was directed against numerous Advocate medical providers and asserted that Dr. Jager was their agent, employee, or apparent agent.[2]

         ¶ 4 Prusak died on November 24, 2013. The circuit court granted Prusak's daughter, Sheri Lawler, leave to file an amended complaint, substituting herself as party plaintiff and as the executor of Prusak's estate. On April 11, 2014, Lawler filed a four-count first amended complaint against all defendants. Counts I and II were directed against the University of Chicago defendants and contained the same allegations of negligence as the original complaint. Count I was brought pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/2 (West 2010)), and count II was brought pursuant to the Survival Act (755 ILCS 5/27-6 (West 2010)). Counts III and IV were directed against the Advocate defendants and also contained the same allegations of negligence as the original complaint. Count III was brought pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act, and count IV was brought pursuant to the Survival Act.[3]

         ¶ 5 The University of Chicago defendants filed a motion to dismiss the wrongful death claim based on section 2-619(a)(5) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(5) (West 2010)). The motion alleged that plaintiff's wrongful death claim was barred by the four-year medical malpractice statute of repose because decedent had died more than four years after the last alleged act of negligent medical treatment. Dr. Jager, University Retina, and the Advocate defendants also filed motions to dismiss on the same basis.

         ¶ 6 Plaintiff responded to defendants' motions and argued that the wrongful death claim was timely and was not barred by the statute of repose because it related back to the original complaint pursuant to section 2-616(b) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-616(b) (West 2010)).

         ¶ 7 The circuit court agreed with defendants and dismissed the wrongful death claim. The court reasoned that the medical malpractice statute of repose was an "absolute bar" to a wrongful death claim brought more than four years after the last alleged act of negligence and that the relation back doctrine did not apply.

         ¶ 8 The appellate court reversed, concluding that the relation back doctrine did apply and that plaintiff's wrongful death claim was not barred by the statute of repose. 2016 IL App (1st) 143189, ¶ 52. The court noted that plaintiff's original complaint was timely filed and that the wrongful death claim related back to the original complaint and was therefore timely. It specifically relied on the language in the relation back statute that " '[t]he cause of action *** in any amended pleading shall not be barred by lapse of time under any statute or contract prescribing or limiting the time within which an action may be brought or right asserted.' " (Emphasis in original.) Id. ¶ 56 (quoting 735 ILCS 5/2-616(b) (West 2010)).

         ¶ 9 ANALYSIS

         ¶ 10 Defendants contend on appeal that the relation back statute does not apply in cases such as here, where a death occurs more than four years after the alleged negligence. Alternatively, defendants argue that even if the relation back statute does apply, the medical malpractice statute of repose should control and preclude plaintiff's wrongful death claim.

         ¶ 11 Defendants' motions to dismiss the wrongful death claim were brought pursuant to section 2-619(a)(5) of the Code. When deciding a motion based on section 2-619 of the Code, a court accepts all well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true and will grant the motion when it appears that no set of facts can be proved that would allow the plaintiff to recover. Moon v. Rhode, 2016 IL 119572, ΒΆ 15. Also, section 2-619(a)(5) of the Code provides that a defendant is entitled to a dismissal if the "action was not commenced within the time limited by law." ...


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