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Coleman v. Provena Hospitals

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

May 14, 2018

DOROTHY COLEMAN, Administrator of the Estate of Johnnie Russell III, Deceased, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
PROVENA HOSPITALS, d/b/a Provena Mercy Medical Center, Defendant-Appellee.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Kane County. No. 11-L-421 Honorable Mark Pheanis, Judge, Presiding.

          JUSTICE SCHOSTOK delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Zenoff and Burke concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          SCHOSTOK JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 Johnnie Russell III was a patient of the defendant, Provena Hospitals, doing business as Provena Mercy Medical Center. The day after Russell was admitted, a nurse discovered that he had a gun. Shortly thereafter, during a confrontation with the Aurora Police Department, Russell was shot to death. The plaintiff, Dorothy Coleman, Russell's sister and the administrator of his estate, filed a wrongful-death action against the defendant, alleging that it was negligent in not searching Russell for weapons on the day he was admitted. The circuit court of Kane County subsequently granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff could not establish that the defendant had proximately caused Russell's death, because there was no evidence that Russell had a gun when he was admitted. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand for additional proceedings.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In November 2006, Russell was shot to death after he pulled a gun and engaged in a confrontation with Aurora police officers while being evaluated at the defendant's hospital. The plaintiff initially filed suit against both the Aurora Police Department and the defendant in federal court, but she later voluntarily dismissed that action as to the defendant. In 2011, the plaintiff filed a wrongful-death action against the defendant in the circuit court of Kane County. The complaint alleged that the defendant's agents and employees were aware of Russell's "mentally defective condition and prior psychiatric history" but failed to conduct a reasonable search to determine whether Russell possessed any contraband that could cause harm to himself or others.

         ¶ 4 In December 2011, the defendant filed its answer, asserting the affirmative defense of comparative negligence and alleging that one or more of Russell's acts "was the proximate cause of his death." Specifically, the defendant asserted that Russell "came to Provena Mercy Medical Center of his own accord carrying an inherently dangerous weapon, namely a gun." The affirmative defense further alleged that the defendant was entitled to offset any judgment in favor of the plaintiff by "an amount commensurate with [Russell's] own degree of comparative negligence." The plaintiff did not file an answer to the affirmative defense.

         ¶ 5 During the pretrial proceedings, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that there was no evidence that its acts or omissions were a proximate cause of Russell's death. On July 1, 2014, the trial court (Judge F. Keith Brown) denied the motion, noting the submission of evidence that agents of the defendant had been aware that Russell was exhibiting "paranoid, psychotic, and aggressive behavior" and knew of his psychiatric history, which included a report that he had threatened to kill his neighbors with his guns; had already sedated Russell once after he became aggressive with staff and had decided to transfer him to the behavioral health unit; and had had Russell remove his clothing and don a hospital gown but had failed to check his belongings for items that could cause harm to Russell or others. The trial court found that this evidence presented a genuine dispute as to whether the conduct of the defendant's agents was a "substantial factor or a material element in bringing about" (i.e., a proximate cause of) Russell's death. The case was given a trial date of November 17, 2014, with a pretrial conference to be held on November 6. On October 22, 2014, the defendant filed a motion to deem its affirmative defense admitted, on the basis that the plaintiff had not filed an answer denying it.

         ¶ 6 On October 23, 2014, the trial court (Judge Thomas Mueller) granted the defendant's motion to deem the affirmative defense admitted. The defendant subsequently filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that, as the affirmative defense had been deemed admitted, the plaintiff could not establish that any of the defendant's conduct was the proximate cause of Russell's death. On November 6, the trial court granted the defendant's motion and entered judgment on the pleadings in favor of the defendant. Following the denial of her motion to reconsider, the plaintiff appealed.

         ¶ 7 On December 18, 2015, this court reversed the trial court's judgment and remanded for additional proceedings. Coleman v. Provena Hospitals, 2015 IL App (2d) 150368-U (Coleman I). We explained that, read liberally, the plaintiff's complaint alleged that Russell was suffering from an impaired mental state at the time of the incident. Specifically, it alleged that, when Russell was admitted to the hospital, he was "suffering from conditions including altered mental stability, *** speech and language deficits, paranoid personality and Dilantin toxicity." The complaint also alleged that Russell was in the process of being transferred from the emergency room to the behavioral health unit. These allegations of an impaired mental state controverted the affirmative defense's allegations that Russell was acting "knowingly" or "willfully" during the incident. They also raised a fair question as to whether Russell was able to appreciate the consequences of his actions at the time, the recklessness and dangerousness of those actions, and the need to follow the orders of medical personnel and the police. Thus, we held, the trial court erred in finding that the allegations of the affirmative defense regarding Russell's mental state had been admitted. Id. ¶ 19.

         ¶ 8 We also found that, to the extent that the affirmative defense alleged that Russell's actions amounted to comparative negligence and were "the proximate cause of his death, " those allegations were conclusions that were not admitted by the failure to reply. We further found, however, that the plaintiff did admit certain factual allegations, specifically that Russell came to the hospital while carrying a gun on his person and that he took hospital staff and patients hostage. Id. ¶¶ 20-21.

         ¶ 9 Pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 366(b) (eff. Feb. 1, 1994), we modified the trial court's order of October 23, 2014, to deem admitted only the affirmative defense's allegations of fact that did not relate to the defendant's mental state and were not conclusory. Based on the modified trial court order, we held that the trial court erred in determining that the admission of those facts mandated the entry of judgment on the pleadings in favor of the defendant. Coleman I, 2015 IL App (2d) 150368-U, ¶¶ 22, 25.

         ¶ 10 Following remand, on February 2, 2017, the defendant filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that the plaintiff had failed to present evidence to support the element of proximate cause. The defendant asserted that there was no evidence that the defendant had a gun when he was admitted, as it was just as plausible that he obtained the gun sometime later. In response, the plaintiff argued that questions of material fact remained that precluded the entry of summary judgment. In support of her response, the plaintiff relied on the 2013 opinions and deposition testimony of her expert, Timothy Hawkins. Hawkins stated that the defendant had a policy to search for contraband when a patient was admitted to the behavioral health unit. Hawkins opined that the defendant should have adhered to that policy throughout the medical center. Hawkins opined that, if the defendant's staff had done that, they would have found the gun and confiscated it pursuant to the "Custody of Firearms Presented at Provena Mercy Center" policy and Russell would be alive today.

         ¶ 11 On April 6, 2017, the trial court (Judge Mark Pheanis) granted the defendant's motion for summary judgment, holding that there was no evidence that would allow the plaintiff ...


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