Mathias W. Delort
Mathias W. Delort

In a case of first impression, a state appeals panel ruled Friday that the relation-back doctrine applies to wrongful-death claims filed after the statute of repose expires.

The decision effectively allows a woman’s estate to add new wrongful-death claims to the timely filed medical-malpractice suit the woman filed while she was still alive.

The doctrine applies, the panel ruled, because the underlying facts between the initial claims and the new ones are the same.

The 1st District Appellate Court ruled that Sheri Lawler can amend the medical-malpractice lawsuit originally brought by her mother, Jill Prusak, to allege claims of wrongful death against the University of Chicago Medical Center and Advocate Christ Hospital and Medical Center in Oak Lawn, after Prusak died.

The panel found the wrongful death claims Lawler alleged are not barred by the four-year statute of repose for medical malpractice because the new claims related back to the facts in the original lawsuit.

“Defendants have not shown how they will be prejudiced by the allowance of Lawler’s amended complaint, especially considering their attention was directed, within the statutory time prescribed to the facts that form the basis of the claims asserted against them,” Justice Mathias W. Delort wrote in the 23-page opinion.

“Lawler’s amended complaint is not based on a new set of facts,” he wrote.

Cook County Associate Judge Daniel T. Gillespie dismissed the wrongful-death claims with prejudice on grounds they were time-barred. But the panel reversed that ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.

In August 2011, Prusak sued Dr. Rama Jager, the University of Chicago Medical Center, Advocate Christ Hospital and several other affiliates for misdiagnosing central nervous system lymphoma — a tumor affecting the brain or spinal cord — as a macular pathology, a condition in a patient’s retinas.

Prusak filed her lawsuit within both the four-year statute of repose and the two-year statute of limitations.

The suit was proceeding through Cook County Circuit Court when she died in November 2013 — after the four-year statute of repose.

As the executor of Prusak’s estate, Lawler filed an amended complaint in April 2014 adding allegations of wrongful-death and survival claims against the defendants relating back to the same set of facts Prusak originally alleged.

Lawler’s amended complaint invoked the relation-back doctrine, which allows plaintiffs to amend their lawsuits, even after the statute of limitations has expired, with new claims provided those new claims relate back to the same set of facts in the original lawsuit.

The defendants objected to the addition of the wrongful-death claims in Lawler’s suit, arguing those were time-barred by the four-year statute of repose.

After Gillespie nixed the claims, Lawler appealed, arguing a wrongful-death action can relate back to the original lawsuit even if the statute of repose has expired.

The panel said the issue raised in this case — how the state’s wrongful-death statute interacts with the limits on filing a medical-malpractice claim and the relation-back doctrine — were ones of first impression.

“This case presents a classic clash of apparently conflicting statutes which requires us to assess each relevant statute to ensure they operate together consistently with their legislative purpose,” Delort wrote.

On appeal, the defendants argued that adding wrongful-death claims essentially makes Lawler’s complaint an entirely new lawsuit, one that would be barred by the statute of repose.

The defendants cited examples of case law in courts struck down wrongful-death lawsuits because they were filed after the statute of repose expired.

The defendants also argued the statute of repose for medical-malpractice cases, as the more specific law, controls the wrongful-death and relation-back statutes.

But the panel found Lawler’s amended complaint distinguishes itself from prior cases. First, Prusak filed her medical-malpractice lawsuit on time; if she hadn’t, Lawler would have been prevented from seeking a wrongful-death claim because the four-year repose period would have already lapsed, the panel said.

The lawsuit was also still active when she died and when Lawler filed her amended complaint.

The justices cited a prior 1st District panel in Sompolski v. Miller, 239 Ill. App. 3d 1087 (1992), where the court found a wrongful-death claim in the plaintiff’s amended complaint was not barred by the two-year statute of limitations because it related back to the decedent’s original personal-injury lawsuit.

The Sompolski court also found the relation-back doctrine is supposed to be construed liberally in favor of the plaintiff.

The defendants argued Sompolski was not the right case to look at because it did not involve medical malpractice, contending the Illinois General Assembly has treated medical-malpractice cases differently than others.

The panel disagreed.

“This is directly analogous to the case before us,” Delort wrote. “Like Sompolski, the wrongful-death claims in this case arose from the same transaction or occurrence described in Prusak’s original complaint and defendants were advised of the essential facts necessary to prepare their defense.”

The panel found that defendants are not prejudiced by Lawler’s complaint because the underlying facts are the same.

Keith A. Hebeisen, a partner at Clifford Law Offices P.C. who represented Lawler, praised the panel’s findings after being “surprised” by the trial court ruling.

“And if you read the opinion, you walk through it, and you can see why we were surprised,” Hebeisen said. “The trial court’s reasoning makes no sense if you look at the clear language of the statutes.”

Robert Marc Chemers, who represents some of the defendants, declined to comment as he had not discussed the opinion yet with his clients.

The University of Chicago Medical Center and its affiliates were represented by Michael T. Trucco, Julie N. Howie and Megan T. Hughes of Stamos & Trucco LLP.

Jager and University Retina & Macula Associates P.C. were represented by Chemers, Daniel B. Mills and Scott L. Howie of Pretzel & Stouffer Chtd.

Advocate Christ Medical Center was represented by Rudolf G. Schade Jr., Julie A. Teuscher and Matthew A. Eliaser of Cassiday, Schade LLP.

Lawler was also represented by Sarah F. King and Robert P. Sheridan of Clifford Law Offices P.C.

Justices Thomas E. Hoffman and Shelvin L. Hall concurred with the opinion.

The case is Sheri Lawler v. The University of Chicago Medical Center, et al., 2016 IL App (1st) 143189.