Under Illinois law, claims for medical malpractice are subject to a four-year statute of repose (735 ILCS 5/13-212(a).) The statute of limitations is two years, but the statute also provides for application of the relation back doctrine (735 ILCS 5/2-616(b).) In late September, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed to decide whether the statute of repose bars application of the relation back doctrine for purposes of adding a claim for wrongful death to an ongoing case. The Court allowed a petition for leave to appeal in Lawler v. University of Chicago Medical Center, a decision from Division Six of the First District.

In 2011, the decedent filed a two-count claim for medical malpractice, alleging that the defendants’ failure to properly assess her macular pathology led them to miss her central nervous system lymphoma. The decedent died two years after filing the complaint, and after the expiration of the four-year statute of repose. The plaintiff was given leave to substitute in as her mother’s executor. A month later, the plaintiff filed a four-count amended complaint, purporting to state claims for survivorship and wrongful death.

The defendants moved to dismiss the wrongful death claims, arguing that the statute of repose barred the claim, notwithstanding the relation back statute. The trial court agreed and dismissed the claim, but Division Six reversed.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that relation back applied to save her wrongful death claims since they were based on the same facts alleged in the underlying negligence action, and plaintiffs had accordingly had adequate notice within the statute of repose to prepare their defense. The defendants argued that the statute of repose took precedence over the relation back statute both because it was the more specific statute, and because it was substantive rather than procedural. The defendants further claimed that there were sufficient substantive and procedural differences between the wrongful death and survivorship claims to make the wrongful death claim a distinct lawsuit beginning past the expiration of the statute of repose.

According to the Appellate Court, the wrongful death claim arose from the same transaction or occurrence described in the decedent’s original complaint. The Court concluded that the defendants would not be prejudiced by allowing the wrongful death claim to go forward, given that the defendants’ attention had been directed, within the time established by the statute of repoise, to the facts that form the basis of the claims against them. The Appellate Court noted that the relation back doctrine had been frequently applied to permit the assertion of amended claim against medical providers under similar circumstances. The Court found no need to resort to the aids to construction relied upon by the defendants – that a specific statute applies over a more general one, and that a substantive statute governs a procedural one – since “the statutory language is clear and unambiguous.”

We expect Lawler to be decided in the summer of 2017.