Illinois Supreme Court Applies Discovery Rule Extending Statute of Limitations Period in Wrongful Death and Survival Actions

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On September 22, 2016, the Illinois Supreme Court issued its opinion in Randall W. Moon v. Clarissa F. Rhode et al. (2016 IL 119572), holding that the discovery rule found in section 13-212(a) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/13-212(a)) was applicable to Wrongful Death and Survival act claims alleging medical malpractice.  Generally, statutes of limitation set deadlines for which plaintiffs must bring claims, however, in certain situations the deadline may be extended by what is referred to as the “discovery rule.”  Although the Court’s opinion was in the context of a medical malpractice case, the discovery rule that the Court held to apply in section 13-212(a) of the Code for medical malpractice claims also appears in section 13-213(d) of the Code for product liability claims.  This decision may provide support for plaintiffs and courts in Illinois to extend the application of the discovery rule to Wrongful Death and Survival act claims in product liability matters.

In Moon v. Rhode, decedent Kathryn Moon was admitted to Proctor Hospital for complications following surgery and passed away on May 29, 2009. Plaintiff, Randall Moon, one of Kathryn’s four children, was appointed executor of his mother’s estate. On March 10, 2010, plaintiff received medical records, including CT scans from his mothers’ complete medical file from Proctor Hospital.  Upon plaintiff’s request, two years later on February 28, 2013, these CT scans were reviewed by Dr. Abraham Dachman who opined that Dr. Clarissa F. Rhode failed to identify a “large loculated extraluminal collection of fluid” which a reasonably, well-qualified radiologist and physician would have identified.   Thereafter, on March 18, 2013, plaintiff filed suit on behalf of his 90-year-old deceased mother, Kathryn Moon, against defendants Clarissa F. Rhode, radiologist, and her employer Central Illinois Radiological Associates, Ltd., claiming medical malpractice in that she failed to identify findings that caused or contributed to his mother’s death, pursuant to the Wrongful Death Act (740 ILCS 180/1 et seq.) and the Survival Act (755 ILCS 5/27-6).  Defendants filed a motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(5) asserting that plaintiff’s Wrongful Death and Survival act claims were time-barred because they were filed more than two years after decedent’s death.  The trial court granted defendants’ motion and dismissed the complaint and the appellate court affirmed.

Section 13-212(a) of the Code (“discovery rule”) provides that within a four-year statute of repose, any claim of malpractice against a physician or hospital must be filed within two years of the date on which the claimant knew, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have known, of the existence of the injury or death for which damages have been sought. 

The Illinois Supreme Court relied upon principles of statutory construction to interpret the legislature’s intent in determining whether the discovery rule applied to wrongful death claims based in medical malpractice.  The Court interpreted a similar meaning to the words “injury” and “death” within the context of the discovery rule and concluded that the statute of limitations in a wrongful death action alleging medical malpractice begins to run when a plaintiff knows or reasonably should know of the death and also knows or reasonably should know that it was wrongfully caused.   The Court also found that although section 2(c) of the Wrongful Death Act provides that “[e]very such action shall be commenced within 2 years after the death of such person,” this provision does not control the statute of limitations at issue in medical malpractice cases.  The Court found that the more specific statute of limitations relating to medical malpractice must control.  The Court went on to find that the legislature intended the discovery rule to govern Wrongful Death claims based in medical malpractice, because under principles of statutory interpretation, each clause must be given reasonable meaning and not rendered superfluous.  So if the legislature had intended for the two year statute of limitations period contained in section 2(c) of the Wrongful Death Act to control medical malpractice claims, then the discovery rule in section 13-212(a) of the Code would be unnecessary.  Relying on the weight of appellate authority in Illinois over the past 38 years, the Court noted that the discovery rule had consistently been applied to Wrongful Death cases alleging medical malpractice. 

The Court also held that the discovery rule applied to plaintiff’s Survival act claim pursuant to section 13-209(a) of the Code, which provides that actions must be brought within two years of discovery of the alleged injury, but if the decedent dies within that two year time period, the estate may bring an action within the original statutory time or within one year after the date of death, whichever is later.  735 ILCS 5/13-209(a).  The Court found that in this case, where Kathryn Moon was nonresponsive prior to her death in the hospital; it would be self-evident that only the representative of her estate would be in a position to discover any wrongdoing on the part of her medical providers.  Therefore, the Court found “no reason to impose the statute of limitations constraints that the decedent would have faced had she lived on plaintiff as the representative without also allowing the benefits of the discovery rule that she would have been entitled to if her alleged injuries had not been so serious as to lead to her death.”  In summary, the Court held that the discovery rule found in section 13-212(a) of the Code was applicable to plaintiff’s Wrongful Death and Survival act claims alleging medical malpractice and reversed the judgment of the appellate court and remanded the case. 

Similar to section 13-212(a) of the Code for medical malpractice claims, section 13-213(d) of the Code for product liability claims provides that within an eight year statute of repose, any claim for product liability must be filed within two years after the date on which the claimant knew, or through the use of reasonable diligence should have known of the existence of the personal injury, death or property damage.   The court did not address claims outside the context of medical malpractice in its ruling and specifically relied upon a long line of appellate court decisions involving medical malpractice claims to support its decision.  Despite different factual considerations in product liability matters, the Court’s decision could arguably be used to support the application of the discovery rule to Wrongful Death and Survival act claims in product liability cases in Illinois.  Therefore, it is advisable for litigants in product liability cases to monitor the application of this decision to future litigation. 

A copy of the opinion can be accessed here. 

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