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What a Long, Strange Trip It's Been: Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Decision That Res Judicata Does Not Apply to Involuntary Dismissal of Multiple Prior Complaints Spanning Ten Years

July 23, 2019 | Terrence O'Toole, Jr. and John Beard

Plaintiff Gerald Ward originally sued Decatur Memorial Hospital in 2009 alleging medical malpractice in the treatment of his brother who developed a post-surgery bed sore that became infected. Plaintiff alleged that his brother died from complications associated with a bacterial infection approximately one month after the Hospital discharged him.

Plaintiff initially filed a nine-count complaint against the Hospital, Decatur Memorial Hospital Home Health Services, and unknown employees of the Hospital. The trial court granted the Hospital’s Motion to Dismiss the majority of the counts but gave Plaintiff permission to refile. Plaintiff then filed first and second amended complaints. The court again dismissed both but with permission to refile. After plaintiff filed a third amended complaint, the Hospital filed responsive pleadings and the parties continued with discovery towards trial. 

In 2015, nearly four years later and only twenty days before the scheduled trial, the Hospital learned that the plaintiff intended to call a rebuttal expert not previously disclosed. The Hospital moved to bar the newly disclosed rebuttal expert, arguing that plaintiff had ample time during the six-year pendency of the case to obtain and properly disclose experts. Before the trial court ruled on the motion to bar, plaintiff moved for leave to file a fourth amended complaint to “more correctly and succinctly describe the alleged negligence of defendant’s nurses as a result of facts developed throughout discovery.”

Taking the motions together, the trial court granted the Hospital’s motion to bar the proposed rebuttal expert witness and denied plaintiff’s motion for leave to file a fourth amended complaint. The court cited the age of the case and noted that the allegations in the third amended complaint were substantially different from those in the proposed fourth amended complaint.  Plaintiff then voluntarily dismissed the action.

Four months later, plaintiff refiled the action and asserted nearly identical allegations as those set forth in the disallowed fourth amended complaint in the prior action. The Hospital moved to bar plaintiff from disclosing witnesses who had been barred in the previous case and to limit other witnesses to the opinions they gave in the initial action, arguing that plaintiff violated Illinois Supreme Court Rule 219(e) by using the dismissal and refiling to avoid having to comply with the previous court’s order. The trial court partially granted the Hospital’s motion and limited the opinions of witnesses to those provided in the prior case, but denied the Hospital’s request to bar the rebuttal witnesses. 

The Hospital then moved for summary judgment on the basis of res judicata, arguing that the trial court had dismissed “numerous counts of various iterations” of plaintiff’s complaint in the prior action and that he elected not to replead the counts. The Hospital asserted those dismissals constituted final adjudications on the merits as the complaints had been dismissed because of legal impediments, such that it was entitled to summary judgment on the basis of res judicata

Plaintiff opposed the motion, asserting that medical negligence was the sole cause of action in all the iterations of the complaint and no final judgment had been entered in the first action. The trial court ultimately granted the Hospital’s motion for summary judgment based on res judicata after initially denying the motion.

On appeal, the Fourth District Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. It concluded that “by granting the plaintiff permission to file an amended complaint, the trial court vacated any suggestion of ‘with prejudice’ in its dismissal of individual counts of the original complaint.”  The appellate court further observed that the trial court had permitted the plaintiff to amend “over and over again, all the way to the third amended complaint…which remained pending and completely unadjudicated at the time of the voluntary dismissal.”

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the appellate court, concluding that res judicata was inapplicable and did not prohibit plaintiff’s refiled lawsuit because there had not been a final judgment on the merits. Each previous dismissal had been dismissals without prejudice and with permission given to refile. As such, the dismissals were not final, did not terminate the litigation, and did not firmly establish the parties’ rights. 

Despite affirming the decision, the Court criticized the “tortured history of litigation” and lack of urgency on the part of the parties and the trial judge to resolve the matter in a timely or efficient manner. Additionally, while conceding that a plaintiff has the absolute right to refile a dismissed complaint, the Court cited the admission made by plaintiff’s counsel on the record that he voluntarily dismissed the initial action because of his disagreement with the trial court’s rulings. Noting that Rule 219(e) “strikes the delicate balance between preserving a plaintiff’s absolute right to refile, while discouraging noncompliance with the trial court’s orders,” the Court commented that while the Rule does not change the existing law as to a plaintiff’s right to seek a voluntary dismissal, “this paragraph does clearly dictate that when a case is refiled, the court shall consider the prior litigation in determining what discovery will be permitted, and what witnesses and evidence may be barred.”     

Thus, while the Supreme Court reaffirmed a plaintiff’s absolute right to refile a dismissed complaint, the Court’s dictum regarding the applicability of Rule 219(e) offers hope to litigants defending refiled actions regarding the potential for limiting the scope of evidence in the face of demonstrated noncompliance with prior orders.

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The BSCR Illinois Law Blog examines significant developments, trends and changes in Illinois law on a broad range of topics that are of interest to Illinois practitioners and to businesses evaluating risks under Illinois law or managing litigation subject to Illinois law. Learn more about the editor, Lisa Larkin.

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