Illinois Appellate Court Affirms Trial Judge’s Summary Judgment Regarding Cook County’s Sovereign Immunity in Medical Negligence Case

On July 30, 2008, Isaiah Lockhart went to the Haymarket Center, a chemical dependency facility. Lockhart had a history of alcohol withdrawal. However, when Lockhart complained of “shortness of breath, dizziness, a productive cough and weight loss,” he was sent to get a medical evaluation.

Lockhart went by ambulance to the emergency room at John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, a/k/a Cook County Hospital. He arrived at 10:26 p.m. and was triaged. His symptoms were documented and his vital signs recorded. At midnight he was brought into a treatment room and assessed by a nurse, who again recorded his vital signs.

At no point was his cardiac rhythm evaluated. Lockhart was left alone in the room for a short time and at 12:20 a.m. he was found in cardiac arrest. After a prolonged course of emergency treatment, his heart was successfully restarted, but the lack of oxygen left Lockhart with severe encephalopathy and in a persistent vegetative state.

Lockhart remained in this condition from July 31, 2008 until he died on Jan. 19, 2011. On Feb. 17, 2011, Lucille Lockhart, his mother, filed a lawsuit against the County of Cook claiming medical negligence at Stroger Hospital.

Cook County Hospital or John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital is a Cook County facility. Lockhart’s mother alleged that the county hospital personnel had been guilty of negligence because the facility failed to assess Lockhart’s cardiac rhythm immediately, to place him on a cardiac monitor or to diagnose his electrolyte imbalance.

At the discovery stage, she submitted the testimony of Dr. John Ortinau, who stated that an immediate assessment with a cardiac monitor was a standard of care for a patient like her son, and that if he had been on a cardiac monitor, “it is more likely than not that an irregular cardiac rhythm would have been identified . . . and prevented the prolonged period of time when no blood or oxygen was delivered to [Lockhart’s] brain.”

On Dec. 23, 2013, Cook County moved for summary judgment claiming immunity to prosecution under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act’s provisions granting immunity for failure to diagnose. The State’s Attorney’s Office, who represents the County of Cook in these cases, argued that no doctor had seen Lockhart and no medical examination had been done, and so it was a failure to diagnose, not a failure to treat.

Lockhart argued that “triaging is by definition treatment” and so a specific diagnosis was not necessary. The Circuit Court judge disagreed and granted Cook County’s motion to dismiss. Lockhart appealed.

On appeal, Lockhart argued that the nurses choosing not to place her son on a cardiac monitor was not a failure to diagnose but a failure to treat. The difference in treating and diagnosing is the keystone to the immunity statute in these cases. The act does not immunize a sovereign body when there are “negligent or wrongful acts or omissions in administering treatment that proximately causes injury.” Lockhart argued that the statute does not require the diagnosis to be done by a doctor and that the nurses, by taking her son’s vital signs and assessing his history and condition, engaged negligently in treatment.

The appeals panel disagreed with that argument noting that a correct diagnosis must be made and treatment must be prescribed for the defendant to be liable under the act.

In this case, no diagnosis was made and a brief medical evaluation and record of vital signs and the patient’s history do not constitute the diagnosis. The appellate court therefore affirmed the Circuit Court judge’s decision that granted summary judgment and affirmed that decision.

Lucille Lockhart, Special Administrator of the Estate of Isaiah Lockhart v. County of Cook, 2015 IL App (1st) 141352-U.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical negligence cases, birth trauma injury cases and hospital negligence cases for individuals and families who have been injured or killed by the negligence of a medical provider for more than 38 years, in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas including, Northbrook, Morton Grove, Norridge, Des Plaines, Orland Park, Orland Hills, Olympia Fields, Riverdale, Prospect Heights, Summit, Thornton, Tinley Park, Hinsdale, Hillside, Berwyn, Blue Island, Bedford Park and Alsip, Ill.

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