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Illinois Appellate Court Issues Two Opinions Concerning Nursing Homes

By Kevin M. Miller

In the past few months, courts of appeal in Illinois have issued two decisions significant to nursing homes in the defense of their professional liability actions. The first held that an aggrieved nursing home resident may not seek punitive damages from the nursing home. The second case outlined the potential for professional liability which employees of nursing homes face. Both cases are discussed below.

In Vincent v. Alden-Park Strathmoor, the legal representative of a deceased nursing home resident brought an action for the resident’s personal injury and wrongful death. The plaintiff also sought to recover punitive damages. The trial court held that if punitive damages were recoverable while the resident was still living, the right to recover punitive damages terminated with the resident’s death. The Appellate Court agreed.

In its analysis, the Court discussed the interplay between the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act and the Illinois Survival Act. The NHCA itself does not provide for punitive damages as a remedy, but merely allows an injured resident to recover punitive damages when they might otherwise be available in common law. The Survival Act does not create any new causes of action, but it does permit an estate to maintain any causes of action that had already accrued prior to the decedent’s death. Under the Survival Act, causes of action that survive death are those only for compensatory damages for injury to a person, and statutory causes of action. The Court then reasoned that while the NHCA is a statutory cause of action, it does not specifically provide for punitive damages but merely permits a Plaintiff to seek recovery of punitive damages independent of the NHCA. As such, any claim for punitive damages abates with the death of the resident, and cannot be recovered, the Survival Act notwithstanding.

In another matter, the Appellate Court further addressed the rights of a nursing home resident under the Nursing Home Care Act. In Childs v. Pinnacle Health Care, the estate of a nursing home resident sued a nursing home and the home’s Director of Nursing. Of course, the NHCA allows for only a cause of action against the owner/licensee of a home, but not against individual medical care providers themselves. The DON moved to dismiss the action against her, claiming that the only basis for the claim was her status with the nursing home as its DON, and as such the only action that could be brought was against the home, not against individuals. The appellate court agreed, but allowed the action against the DON to remain anyway.

In explaining its reasoning, the Court affirmed the long-held rule that the NHCA does not allow suits against individuals for negligent nursing care; it affords only a claim against the nursing home itself. In the case before it, however, the allegations against the DON included claims of nursing negligence that were independent of the DON’s administrative responsibilities, and therefore the DON could be sued in her individual capacity for nursing malpractice. Such a lawsuit could not be brought under the NHCA, but could be maintained as a common law medical malpractice suit. 

In summary, the appellate court has maintained the nursing homes’ right to be free from punitive damages claims in actions where the resident has passed away. And while the individuals who provide nursing or medical care to a resident are faced with common law malpractice claims, their liability does not stem from any alleged violation of the Nursing Home Care Act.

Originally published in the Summer 2010 edition of Quinn Quarterly.

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