An Overview of Illinois Supreme Court Medical Malpractice Decisions

In the last few years, the Illinois Supreme Court has addressed various issues in the context of medical malpractice cases.  The following cases provide guidance in the area of medical/healthcare malpractice with respect to wrongful birth, negligent infliction of emotional distress, res judicata, Statute of Limitations, Statute of Repose and punitive damages:

Wrongful Birth & Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress

Clark v. Children’s Memorial Hospital, 353 Ill.Dec. 254 (2011)

Plaintiffs were claiming wrongful birth and expenses of caring for their disabled child.  Plaintiffs’ first child was born with a genetic mutation resulting in Angleman Syndrome.  They claimed that they were not made aware of this condition, and that they would not have conceived their second child if they had been advised of the risks of giving birth to a child with the same condition.  The Plaintiffs made a claim for wrongful birth and for expenses of caring for a disabled child after reaching the age of majority.  The Court held that the claim for the expenses was properly dismissed because Illinois does not require parents to support children after the age of majority.

However, the Court held that the “zone of danger” test does not apply to Plaintiffs who seek compensation for emotional damages as an element of damages for the tort of wrongful birth.

Thornton v. Garcini, 237 Ill.2d 100 (2009)

This case involved a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.  The facts of this case involve a premature birth where the head of the child became stuck inside of the mother while the rest of his body was delivered.  The baby died when the nurses were unable to complete the delivery.  The doctor was notified but arrived 1 hour and 10 minutes after the death of the baby.

The issue in this case was whether a Plaintiff is required to present expert testimony to support a claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress.  In reaching the conclusion, the Supreme Court recognized that there may be instances when expert testimony can aid a jury in identifying how and when strong emotions produce symptoms in patients.  However, the Court also recognized that jurors from their own experience are able to determine whether specific conduct can result in severe emotional disturbance.  Consequently, the existence or non-existence of medical testimony goes to the weight of the evidence but does not prevent this issue from being submitted to the jury.

The Court held that based on personal experience alone, i.e. the partial birth and death of a child whose head becomes stuck inside the mother while the rest of his body was outside of the mother and which remained that way for 1 hour and 10 minutes before the doctor’s arrival, the jury could reasonably find that the circumstances of the case caused the Plaintiff emotional distress.  In fact, the Plaintiff explicitly testified with respect to the experience of having her deceased infant protrude from her body for over an hour while awaiting the doctor’s arrival.  Consequently, the Court held that expert testimony was not required to prove Plaintiff’s case of negligent infliction of emotional distress.

Statute of Limitations & Statute of Repose

Kaufmann v. Schroeder, 349 Ill.Dec. 151 (2011)

This matter involves the issue of whether a case sounds in medical malpractice, or whether it is a cause of action for a non-medical reason.  In this case, the Plaintiff alleged that the physician committed a sexual battery upon her in performing an unnecessary examination under sedation at the Defendant/Hospital, which was a municipal corporation.

The issue was whether under the circumstances of the case, Plaintiff’s claim was time-barred pursuant to the one year statute of limitations period found in Section 8-101 (a) of the Local Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act, or whether the 2 year Statute of Limitations arising out of “patient care” applied.

The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision applying the one year limitations period and rejecting the Plaintiff’s argument that the two year Statute of Limitations applied because the injuries arose out of patient care.  The Supreme Court held that the allegations with respect to the injuries did not arise out of medical treatment because the patient did not claim that the “unnecessary” examination and sedation she received harmed her in any way, rather the harm resulted from a sexual assault.

Therefore, the sedation and the “unnecessary” examination were not part of medical treatment, rather the injury arose out of the alleged sexual assault by the Defendant.  Since the sexual assault itself was not medical care, the one year Statute of Limitations under the Tort Immunity Act applied and the Court affirmed the dismissal of the case as time-barred.

Uldrych v. VHS of Illinois, Inc., 239 Ill.2d 532 (2010)

In this medical malpractice case, the hospital settled the underlying case with the Plaintiff and then filed a Counterclaim for implied indemnity against the surgeons.  The facts of the case showed that the Decedent underwent gastric bypass surgery at the hospital and alleged that a segment of bowel was injured.  The Decedent and his wife sued the hospital as well as the Defendant surgeons and the surgeons’ employer for medical malpractice.  After he died, the wife filed a Second Amended Complaint alleging claims for survival and wrongful death.

The hospital agreed to settle the medical malpractice claim with the Plaintiff.  It then filed an Amended Counterclaim for implied indemnification against the surgeons and the surgeons’ employer approximately 5 ½ years after the alleged malpractice occurred.

The issue was whether the 4 year Statute of Repose applied to the implied indemnity claim.  The Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that the four year medical malpractice Statute of Repose applied to claims arising out of patient care pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/13-212 (a) which barred the hospital’s indemnification claim filed more than a year beyond that time.

The Supreme Court agreed, focusing on the relevant question of whether the claim arose out of “patient care” pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/13-212 (a) not on the actual labeling of the claim.  The Supreme Court recognized that the medical malpractice Statute of Repose expressly states that it applies to actions “arising out of patient care”.  That phrase has been interpreted broadly to include “any injuries that have their origin in or are incidental to a patient’s medical care and treatment”.  Consequently, the Supreme Court of Illinois held that actions for implied indemnity are subject to the four year repose period with respect to medical malpractice cases.

Punitive Damages

Vincent v. Alden-Park Strathmoor, Inc., 241 Ill.2d 495 (2011)

This case involves the issue of punitive damages in the context of the Nursing Home Care Act.  The Plaintiff alleged that the nursing home owner and licensee were   responsible for willful and wanton violations of the Nursing Home Care Act which provides remedies, including actual damages and costs and attorneys fees.  None of the provisions of the Nursing Home Care Act expressly mentions punitive damages as a remedy.

The Court however recognized case law that allowed punitive damages in cases involving a violation of the Nursing Home Care Act.  Consequently, the Supreme Court held that the Circuit and Appellate Courts in this case correctly concluded that Plaintiff had a right to claim punitive damages based on a willful and wanton violation of the Nursing Home Care Act.  However, the right to receive punitive damages abates on the death of the nursing home resident alleged to be injured by those violations.  In this case, because the nursing home resident was deceased, the Court held that there was no set of circumstances under which the Plaintiff could recover punitive damages under the Nursing Home Care Act.