Nothing in Illinois law would bar successor plaintiffs from adding a wrongful death claim to a pending medical malpractice lawsuit, even if the plaintiff dies more than four years after the first malpractice suit was filed, or apparently outside the statute of repose, Illinois’ highest state court has ruled.

The decision clears the path for the family of a woman who died while suing a doctor and the University of Chicago Medical Center for medical negligence to also press their wrongful death claims against the defendants, over the objections of the doctor and hospital, who had attempted to argue the additional claims came too late in the process.

On Nov. 30, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of the family of Jill Prusak in what a state appellate court had called a “classic clash of apparently conflicting statutes.”

But the state’s high court justices indicated the question, for them, was less complicated.

“… The statute of repose was enacted to curtail the ‘long tail’ of liability created by the increased use of the discovery rule beginning in the 1960s,” the justices said. “It aims to prevent the assertion of stale claims and to protect defendants from uncertain and protracted liability.

“However, when there is a pending complaint based on medical malpractice and a wrongful death claim is added to that complaint, these concerns are not implicated. A defendant would already be aware of a claim for medical malpractice, and the wrongful death claim would not be stale if it is based on the same transaction or occurrence as the original complaint.”

The opinion was authored by Justice Charles E. Freeman. Chief Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier and justices Robert R. Thomas, Thomas L. Kilbride, Rita B. Garman, Anne M. Burke and Mary Jane Theis all concurred in the decision.

The case landed first in Cook County Circuit Court in 2011, when Prusak sued her doctor, Rama Jager, and the University of Chicago Medical Center and several affiliated defendants for allegedly misdiagnosing a tumor in her nervous system.

Prusak died two years later, and she was succeeded as plaintiff by her daughter and estate executor, Sheri Lawler. Her attorneys, with the Clifford Law Offices, of Chicago, then amended the complaint to include claims of wrongful death, increasing the potential damages faced by the defendants.

In response, the defendants asked the court to dismiss those additional claims, arguing they were filed outside the four-year statute-of-repose, a mechanism similar to the statute of limitations, designed to bar plaintiffs from bringing “stale claims” in court.

Cook County Associate Judge Daniel T. Gillespie sided with the defendants, saying the wrongful death claims represented a new action, and should be prohibited under the statute of repose.

But Lawler appealed, asserting the wrongful death claim merely grew out of the initial malpractice and negligence claims, and, under Illinois’ so-called “relation back statute,” should be allowed.

On appeal, a three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court agreed, finding the malpractice claim and wrongful death claims are intertwined, and the wrongful death claim should not have surprised the defendants who “had notice from the beginning that the petitioner was trying to enforce a claim against it because of the events leading up to the death” of Prusak.

The defendants then took the matter to the Illinois Supreme Court, but failed to persuade the justices there, as well.

Justices specifically rejected the defendants’ assertion that ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in this case would create an “exception” within the statute of repose, where state lawmakers did not intend one to be.

The justices, however, said the key in Prusak’s case is not when the wrongful death claim was added. Rather, they said, it is whether the medical malpractice lawsuit that began the process was filed on time.  Since it was, they said, the wrongful death claim that grew out of it - and which included language “verbatim from the allegations of malpractice in the original complaint” - can be added.

“The statute of repose bars a cause of action if it is initially brought more than four years after the alleged medical negligence,” the justices wrote.  “The relation back statute governs amendments to complaints and functions without being subject to time limitations.

“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 University of Chicago defendants and Rama are defended by Pretzel & Stouffer, of Chicago.

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Clifford Law Offices Cook County Circuit Court Illinois First District Appellate Court Illinois Supreme Court

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