A state supreme court is set to decide whether the two-year statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death lawsuit should start, as it does now, from the time of death or from the moment the plaintiff learns of the circumstances that may have contributed to or caused death. The distinction is the difference between a finite period in which liability claims can be filed and an undetermined longer period.

What happened
At stake in Moon v. Rhode is whether a complaint brought against a radiologist in a wrongful death lawsuit was filed within the two-year timeline allowed under the Illinois statute of limitations.

After complications following surgery at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill., Kathryn Moon died on May 29, 2009. In Feb. 2013, Moon’s estate sent CT radiographs to a diagnostic radiologist who concluded that Clarissa Rhode, MD, had negligently misread the scans which caused or contributed to Moon’s death. Moon’s estate sued Dr. Rhode and her employer in a wrongful death action on March 18, 2013.

Relying on Illinois’ Wrongful Death Act, which provides that wrongful death suits must be filed within two years of death, the defendants moved to dismiss. The estate, however, argued that the limitation period should start from the time of discovery of the negligence.

The story hasn’t stopped there. The trial court granted the dismissal, which the estate appealed. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed the dismissal but in a split decision. On a second appeal, the case now has moved to the Supreme Court of Illinois.

Why this case matters
The statute of limitations is in place to not only allow a significant amount of time for review of the cause of death but also to protect physicians from uncertain liabilities that could hang over them for indeterminate periods of time. If the limitation is extended to the time of discovery—which could occur several years down the road—physicians would be left uncertain over whether something long-past will resurface.

“This ruling affects not only Dr. Rhode and her associates but all physicians and licensed health care providers in the state of Illinois,” the Litigation Center of the AMA and State Medical Societies said in an amicus brief. “This court should give effect to the intent of the General Assembly, which created a fair and just process for tort claims.”

“The General Assembly intended to provide the citizens of this state with a limitations period fair to both plaintiffs and defendants,” the brief said. “It balances the need for plaintiffs to bring lawsuits with the defendants’ need to know when their potential liability is extinguished.”

“To expand the discovery rule as drafted by the General Assembly,” the brief said, “would contradict the laudable purpose of the legislation. The limitations period language is clear and unambiguous.”