Cook County Record

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Divided IL Supreme Court rejects try to hold Northwestern Memorial liable for clinic doctors' actions

By Jonathan Bilyk | Dec 30, 2017

1200px northwestern memorial hospital streeterville chicago
By Ken Lund from Reno, Nevada, USA - Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Streeterville, Chicago, Illinois, CC BY-SA 2.0,

A majority of the state’s highest court has rejected a woman’s attempt to hold Northwestern Memorial Hospital responsible for alleged mistakes made by medical professionals employed by a federally funded health clinic which led to the premature birth of her child, saying the case asks the court to expand Illinois case law on the question of so-called “vicarious liability” for hospitals.

 On Dec. 29, the Illinois Supreme Court decided 4-3 in favor of one of Chicago’s flagship hospitals, with the majority saying they believed they could not stretch precedent to grant plaintiff Christina Yarbrough’s request to force Northwestern to pay for the actions of doctors employed by Erie Family Health Center, and to whom the hospital has merely granted privileges to practice at the hospital, without any other affiliation or relationship.

“We recognize that physicians employed by Erie routinely have privileges to practice at NMH,” the majority wrote.

But controlling precedent, they said, “does not suggest that merely granting a physician employed by another entity hospital staff privileges alone could create an apparent agency relationship.”

The majority opinion was authored by Justice Mary Jane Theis. Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and justices Robert Thomas and Rita Garman concurred.

Justice Anne M. Burke authored a dissent, joined by justices Charles Freeman and Thomas Kilbride.

The case landed before the state Supreme Court about 11 years since Yarbrough unexpectedly gave birth via emergency cesarean section at only 26 weeks gestation. Yarbrough had been receiving care from doctors and other medical staff at Erie Family Health Center, a federally-funded, nonprofit health clinic which operates several locations in Chicago and nearby suburbs, since she had first visited the clinic in 2005, seeking a pregnancy test.

After her pregnancy was confirmed, court documents assert Yarbrough, who did not have a obstetrician/gynecologist of her own, was told by clinic workers she would deliver her baby at Northwestern Memorial, if she received care from them.

In 2009, Yarbrough filed a medical malpractice suit against Northwestern in Cook County Circuit Court, alleging the hospital should be held responsible because the clinical staff at Erie allegedly failed to accurately identify and address her bicornuate uterus and shortened cervix, leading to her child’s premature birth and “numerous medical complications.”

According to court documents, because Erie is a federally-funded clinic, its employees are treated as federal workers, should a malpractice action be brought, meaning they can only be sued under a tort claim against the federal government.

Northwestern ultimately responded by asking the court to grant it summary judgment in the matter, asserting it should not be held liable for the actions of doctors who it does not employ, and who practice at a clinic not affiliated with Northwestern.

A Cook County judge and state appeals panel, however, rejected Northwestern’s assertion, saying they believed there was enough evidence of “close ties between NMH and Erie” to satisfy vicarious liability guidelines established in the 1993 Illinois Second District Appellate Court decision in Gilbert v. Sycamore Municipal Hospital.

Northwestern then appealed to the state Supreme Court, where the majority overturned the lower courts, declaring they believed there was enough of an obvious distinction between Northwestern and Erie to grant the hospital the summary judgment it sought, stopping short of applying the Gilbert standards.

“Here, Yarbrough sought treatment at Erie but looks to impose liability on NMH. Erie is neither owned nor operated by NMH,” the majority wrote. “While Erie receives some charitable financial and technical assistance from NMH, Erie is an FQHC that relies heavily on federal grants and Medicaid reimbursement to provide underserved communities with primary and preventative care regardless of an individual’s ability to pay. Erie’s employees are considered federal employees, and suits against Erie or its employees can only be maintained under the Federal Torts Claim Act.

“Erie does not utilize the Northwestern name. There is no Northwestern-related branding or the use of Northwestern’s trademark purple color by Erie.

“… We refuse to read Gilbert and its progeny so broadly as to impose vicarious liability under the doctrine of apparent authority on a hospital for the care given by employees of an unrelated, independently owned and operated clinic like Erie,” the majority concluded.

In her dissent, however, Burke said the full court recognized there was nothing in Illinois law or legal precedent barring Yarbrough from pressing her vicarious liability claims. Yet, the majority still determined Yarbrough can’t press her claims, committing “clear legal error” in quickly granting Northwestern summary judgment, without first conducting the legal legwork needed to establish Northwestern’s claim to such a ruling, Burke said.

“… The majority makes no mention of the burden NMH faces under summary judgment,” Burke wrote. “Indeed, by expressly resting its decision on an analysis of the specific facts of this case but then calling that analysis the answer to the certified question, the majority has effectively awarded NMH summary judgment on a question of fact without ever requiring NMH to meet the summary judgment standard.

“This is both confusing and unfair to plaintiffs.”

Yarbrough was represented before the Supreme Court by attorneys with the firm of Janet, Jenner & Suggs LLC, of Baltimore.

Northwestern Memorial was represented by the firm of Swanson Martin & Bell, of Chicago.


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Organizations in this Story

Northwestern Memorial HospitalSwanson, Martin & Bell LLPIllinois Supreme CourtIllinois First District Appellate CourtIllinois Second District Appellate CourtJanet Jenner & Suggs