Punitive Damages By Surviving Family Members Denied Under the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act – Vincent v. Alden-Park Strathmoor, Inc.

A recent Illinois Supreme Court decision changed the way damages can be sought under the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act. The Court ruled unanimously in a 6-0 ruling that punitive damages cannot be awarded for wrongful death cases under the Nursing Home Care Act in Thomas Vincent v. Alden-Park Strathmoor, Inc., No. 110406.

Punitive damages are different than compensatory damages, which are awarded by courts and juries as payment for actual harm or losses suffered as a result of the defendant’s actions. While compensatory damages are seen almost as a way to reimburse the plaintiff for their loss, punitive damages are meant as a way to punish a defendant for its actions. Punitive damages are typically awarded in addition to compensatory damages and are only awarded when the defendant’s actions are so grossly negligent that additional censure is needed.

In the underlying Chicago nursing home malpractice case, Thomas Vincent, the legal representative for his deceased mother’s estate, filed a complaint that contained three counts requesting damages be paid by Alden-Park Strathmoor, Inc. for its negligent care and treatment of his mother prior to her death. While two of the counts sought compensatory damages, the third and final count was a survival claim filed under the Nursing Home Care Act which included a request for punitive damages for the nursing home’s allegedly willful and wanton conduct.

The Winnebago County trial judge ruled that Vincent could not recover punitive damages under the Nursing Home Care Act because his mother was deceased. It certified the question for an interlocutory appeal. In an interlocutory appeal, a question of law must first be settled by either an appellate court or a supreme court before the trial may continue. In Vincent, the question was whether a surviving family member could seek punitive damages under the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act.

The question was first brought to an Illinois Appellate Court, which ruled that common law punitive damages may not be awarded in a survival claim made under the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act. In its opinion, the Appellate Court stated that its reason for its ruling was that there was no statutory basis in the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act that established a precedent for punitive damage claims in general. Furthermore, the court held that the case of Mattyasovszky v. West Towns Bus Co., 61 Ill.2d 31 (1975) established that punitive damages cannot be brought by a surviving family member.

However, in its appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, the plaintiff’s attorneys argued that given the fact that most nursing home residents tend to have a short life-expectancy coupled with the time-consuming nature of nursing home malpractice lawsuits, most nursing home residents will die before their cases come to trial. Therefore, if the claim for punitive damages dies with the nursing home resident, then this unjustly protects nursing homes from punitive damages because of the unique circumstances surrounding many nursing home malpractice claims.

While the plaintiff’s brief focused on the reasons punitive damages should be allowed under survival claims, the defendant’s brief to the Illinois Supreme Court focused on the legal precedent and statutory evidence for this issue. It argued that the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act did not specifically provide for punitive damages in wrongful death cases. The defense held that if the court ruled otherwise that it would violate the separation of powers clause in the Illinois state constitution. Under the Illinois constitution the legislative branch is responsible for creating the laws and the judicial branch is responsible for interpreting those laws; however, that interpretation is not meant to go above and beyond the scope of the original law.

In its ruling, the Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the Appellate Court’s decision that common-law punitive damages are not available in a survival claim under the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act. By doing so, the Illinois Supreme Court elected not to exceed the powers prescribed to it under the Illinois constitution. In its decision, the Supreme Court left no room for interpretation when it stated, “Under Illinois law, any right to common-law punitive damages is lost once the injured party has died.”
Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier went on to state, “There is no set of circumstances under which the plaintiff [in Vincent] could recover punitive damages, even if he succeeded in establishing willful and wanton violations of the Nursing Home Care Act by Alden-Park Strathmoor.”

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois nursing home cases for individual and families for more than 35 years in and around Chicago and Cook County, including the areas of Calumet City, Tinley Park , and Prospect Heights.

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