Illinois Appellate Court Bars Medical Expert in Wrongful Death Lawsuit

This lawsuit arose out of a wrongful-death and medical malpractice case brought by the plaintiff, Lawanda Freeman. She was the special administrator of the estate of her deceased husband, Terrance Freeman. In her complaint against the defendant, Gayle R. Crays, M.D., she alleged that Dr. Crays was negligent in the treatment of Terrance’s cardiovascular disease and that negligence was the proximate cause of Terrance’s death. Right before the trial was set to start, the trial judge ruled that Freeman’s only expert witness was unqualified to offer any opinions on the issue of causation, thus creating a fatal evidentiary gap in the plaintiff’s case.

In response to the trial judge’s ruling barring this expert witness, Freeman moved to voluntarily dismiss her complaint. The trial judge granted the voluntary dismissal without prejudice.

Shortly thereafter, Freeman refiled her complaint. Upon learning that Freeman intended to disclose an additional or new medical expert witness to offer opinions on the issue of causation, Dr. Crays’ lawyers moved to adopt the rulings from the earlier case and bar any testimony of plaintiff’s newly disclosed expert opinion pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 219(e).

After the judge granted the defendant’s motion barring the new expert witness from testifying, Dr. Crays moved for summary judgment based on plaintiff’s inability to satisfy the negligence element of causation. The trial judge granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment disposing of the case; the plaintiff appealed.

Freeman argued on appeal that the trial court abused its discretion by (1) barring her original medical expert witness from offering any opinions on the issue of causation and (2) improperly applying Rule 219(e) in the later filed lawsuit. The Illinois Appellate Court affirmed in part, reversed in part and remanded the cause for directions for further proceedings.

In the complaints filed by the plaintiff, it was generally alleged that Dr. Crays, a family practice physician, had breached the standard of care applicable to family practitioners by choosing not to diagnose Terrance’s enlarged heart or his severe coronary artery disease and by choosing not to refer him to a cardiologist. The allegations were supported by the opinion letter by Freeman’s board-certified family practice physician expert witness.

As the original case was ready to proceed to trial, it was determined that the family practice physician expert for the plaintiff would be the only medical expert witness. It was during the final pretrial conference that the trial court ruled on numerous motions in limine filed by both parties. Generally speaking, because the family practice physician was not a cardiologist, he could not offer opinions as to what a reasonably careful cardiologist would have done in the same or similar circumstances and thus the court granted the motion in limine barring his testimony. Accordingly, without causation testimony, the plaintiff would have been unable to prove her case.

It is well-settled law that the decision whether to admit expert testimony is within the sound discretion of the trial court. Thompson v. Gordon, 221 Ill.2d 414, 428-29 (2006). A trial court would have abused its discretion only where no reasonable person would oppose the position adopted by the court. Colburn v. Mario Tricoci Hair Salons & Day Spas, Inc., 2012 IL App (2d) 110624, § 22.

Here, the trial court’s ruling barring plaintiff from disclosing an expert witness in the field of cardiology in the new case was based on its application of Rule 219(e), which prevents discovery abuses by encouraging compliance with the entire discovery process. Rather than acting to bar a plaintiff’s statutory right to a voluntary dismissal, Rule 219(e) curtails a plaintiff’s use of the voluntary dismissal as a dilatory tactic. Scattercorp v. Midwest Clearing Corp., 219 Ill.App.3d 653, 660 (1998). As with other pretrial discovery rulings, the appeals panel set forth that “we review the trial court’s decision to bar evidence in a refiled action for an abuse of discretion.” Hayward v. C.H. Robinson Co., 2014 IL App (3d) 130530, ¶ 45.

The court added that regardless of whether defendant filed any motion, Rule 219(e) required the trial court to consider the prior litigation in determining what discovery would be permitted and whether a witness or evidence would be barred in the newly filed case. The court rejected plaintiff’s argument that the trial court lacked jurisdiction to bar the disclosure of additional witnesses in the newly filed case.

The court erred according to the appeals panel’s opinion in the way it applied Rule 219(e) to bar Freeman’s newly disclosed expert witness in the refiled case. In addition, the opinion stated that the trial court was in error in improperly applying the standard that governs imposition of monetary sanctions, rather than following the framework for applying Rule 219 (e) in the refiled lawsuit. On remand, the appellate court directed the trial court to reconsider the issue using the standard adopted from the case of Smith v. P.A.C.E., 223 Ill.App.3d 1067, 1075 (2001).

Lawanda Freeman v. Gayle R. Crays, M.D., No. 2018 IL App (2d) 170169.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling medical negligence cases, birth trauma injury cases, brain damage lawsuits and wrongful death cases for individuals and families who have been harmed, injured or died as a result of the carelessness or negligence of a medical provider for more than 40 years in and around Chicago, Cook County and its surrounding areas, including Winfield, West Chicago, Crete, Mundelein, Rosemont, Lisle, Long Grove, Mount Prospect, Chicago (Wicker Park, Streeterville, Pill Hill, Old Town Triangle, Chinatown, West Loop, Logan Square, Lincoln Park, Ashburn), Wheaton, Hinsdale, Aurora and Cicero, Ill.

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