Charles E. Freeman
Charles E. Freeman
Keith A. Hebeisen
Keith A. Hebeisen

SPRINGFIELD — The state’s top court has ruled wrongful-death claims can be added to a malpractice suit even after the statute of repose has expired.

Illinois’ Supreme Court unanimously held Thursday that the plaintiffs in the case could use the legal rule that softens time limits for amended pleadings if they stem from the same course of conduct that was originally alleged.

Justice Charles E. Freeman authored the unanimous decision, finding that the relation-back doctrine — which allows new claims to be tied to the date of previously filed ones — prevailed over a four-year time-limit on medical-malpractice claims written in the Code of Civil Procedure.

Section 2-616(b) of the code permits altered pleadings to be filed, in spite of time limits, as long as the original case was filed timely and both sets of filings grew out of the same transactions or occurrences.

In this case, it meant the estate of a woman with pending claims about a missed lymphoma diagnosis could add arguments under the Wrongful Death Act after she died as a result of the missed diagnosis, even though a four-year statute of repose had already elapsed.

“The wrongful-death claim was based on the same alleged acts of medical malpractice as in the original complaint. In fact, the allegations of malpractice in the wrongful death claim are taken verbatim from the allegations of malpractice in the original complaint,” Freeman wrote in the 15-page decision.

“Since plaintiff has satisfied the two requirements in the relation-back statute, it applies to her wrongful-death claim.”

Jill Prusak filed a two-count complaint in August 2011 that alleged medical malpractice against Dr. Rama Jager, University Retina and Macula Associates P.C. and several University of Chicago and Advocate Medical Group providers. She argued that for nearly two years, they treated her eye problems but failed to diagnose central nervous system lymphoma.

She died in November 2013 and her daughter and the executor of her estate, Sheri Lawler, was allowed to file an amended complaint on her behalf in April 2014. Her four-count complaint contained the same allegations of negligence against the same defendants, but two of them were brought under the Wrongful Death Act.

The defendants filed Section 2-619 motions to dismiss the wrongful death claims, arguing it was barred by the four-year statute of repose because Prusak died more than four years after the alleged act of negligent medical treatment.

A Cook County judge agreed, dismissing the claims and ruling they were time-barred. But a 1st District Appellate Court reversed in March 2016, with Justice Mathias W. Delort writing that the new claims were not based on new facts and that the defendants didn’t show how they would be prejudiced by their inclusion.

In the decision Thursday, the high court disagreed with the defendants’ claim that the statute of repose “extinguished” the wrongful-death claim, citing a 2014 decision in Evanston Insurance Co. v. Riseborough, in which the court used similar language.

The court noted the repose limitation was intended to limit the “long tail” of doctors’ exposure to medical-malpractice claims, but also wrote it had never specifically applied the logic to the relation-back statute, “which specifically precludes amendments to pending complaints from being time-barred,” Freeman wrote.

The justices also noted the Evanston Insurance case, which centered around legal malpractice, did not concern an amendment to a pending complaint, but one that had already been dismissed for failure to state a cause of action.

Additionally, the court wrote it’s not really a drastic departure of law to allow changes to pending complaints after limitations periods have expired.

The court had done so in cases involving defamation when new claims were based on the same news story as an original complaint (Bryson v. News America Publications Inc. in 1996); product-liability cases when amended filings are based on the same allegations as original filings (Santiago v. E.W. Bliss Co. in 2012); and in determining the duty of care for a train company (Chandler v. Illinois Central Railroad Co. in 2003).

Similar decisions in medical-malpractice cases have also been rendered in states like Massachusetts in 2011 and Georgia in 2007 the court noted, although perhaps with less emphasis on those states’ relation-back rules.

Finally, the justices found the defendants were wrong that the relation-back statute and the statute of repose are in conflict and that the repose statute should take precedent over the relation-back rules.

“The statute of repose bars a cause of action if it is initially brought more than four years after the alleged medical negligence. The relation-back statute governs amendments to complaints and functions without being subject to time limitations,” the court wrote. “Thus, when applying the relation-back statute, the statute of repose will not bar an amendment as long as there is a pending timely filed original complaint and the same transaction or occurrence test is satisfied. The relation-back statute is the more specific statutory provision in these circumstances.”

Scott L. Howie of Pretzel & Stouffer Chtd. argued for the defendants at the Supreme Court.

Keith A. Hebeisen of Clifford Law Offices P.C. argued for the plaintiff. He praised the Supreme Court for writing a straightforward opinion on a topic than can be esoteric. But, he added, the claims at-issue here easily met the test described in the relation-back statute because they clearly stemmed from the same series of events.

He also said he he’s had similar cases before but was “shocked” when the defendants filed their argument, and shocked when the trial court agreed with them.

“I’ve never had someone file a motion to say that the statute of repose trumps the relation-back statute,” Hebeisen said. “It’s not real common, but this is the first time I’ve had someone filing a motion to make that argument.”

He added later: “Someone finally made it, and now it’s been shot down.”

Howie declined to comment.

The case is Sheri Lawler v. University of Chicago Medical Center, et al., No. 120745.