Illinois Supreme Court Clarifies Proper Method for Naming an Estate as a Defendant in Cases of Unknown Death of Party Under 735 ILCS 5/13-209(C)

In Relf v. Shatayeva, 2013 IL 114925, the Illinois Supreme Court refined its analysis of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure when a plaintiff mistakenly sues a decedent, and offered insight into how it interprets the Illinois Compiled Statutes by analyzing indirectly related statutory provisions for guidance.

In February of 2008, Sandra Relf was injured in an automobile accident allegedly caused by Grand Pre.  Mr. Pre died on April 25, 2008.  Mr. Pre’s son, Gary, was issued letters of office as the executor of his father’s Estate in September of 2008.  In February 2010, Ms. Relf filed suit against Mr. Pre just as the two-year statute of limitations was about to expire.  After several failed attempts at serving Mr. Pre, a special process server advised Ms. Relf on May 17, 2010 that Mr. Pre was deceased.  On May 24, 2010, Ms. Relf’s Complaint was dismissed with prejudice for lack of diligence in obtaining service on Mr. Pre.

On September 24, 2010, Ms. Relf moved to vacate the dismissal and requested that the Court appoint a Special Administrator for the Estate of Grand Pre.  The Court granted both her motions and she filed a First Amended Complaint.  The Special Administrator moved to dismiss, arguing that the Amended Complaint was untimely.  The Special Administrator argued that the plaintiff’s complaint was null and void upon filing because it improperly named a decedent and not his estate as the sole defendant.  Thus, any subsequent amendment naming a new defendant amounted to an entirely new lawsuit, and could not relate back to the initial filing date.  The circuit court dismissed the Amended Complaint and the plaintiff appealed. The Appellate Court reversed the dismissal, but the Special Administrator filed an appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court, which affirmed the circuit court’s decision and dismissed the matter with prejudice.

The Supreme Court first reaffirmed that a suit against a decedent is a nullity.  As such, Ms. Relf’s initial complaint did not preserve her claim against the Estate of Grand Pre.  However, the Court examined whether Ms. Relf’s actions following her awareness of Mr. Pre’s death were sufficient to trigger the safe-harbor provision in 735 ILCS 5/13-209(c). Specifically, whether her conduct met its first two requirements: (1) whether, after learning of the defendant’s death, she acted with reasonable diligence to file an amended complaint naming the personal representative of the defendant’s estate; and (2) whether she acted with reasonable diligence in serving the personal representative.  If these conditions were met, her Amended Complaint would be timely under the safe-harbor provision.

Ms. Relf contended that she was diligent, having been advised of Mr. Pre’s death in May 2010, and having filed an Amended Complaint and serving the Special Administrator with process in September 2010.  The defendant argued that Ms. Relf did not move with reasonable diligence to name and serve the proper defendant, Gary Pre as the Executor of Mr. Pre’s Estate; instead, she circumvented Section 13-209 by having a Special Administrator appointed by the court.

In examining whether Ms. Relf meet the requirements of 13-209(c) by appointing and serving process on a Special Administrator when a Personal Representative already represented Mr. Pre’s Estate, the Supreme Court looked to the Illinois Probate Act for guidance on the significance, if any, of the terms “Special Administrator” and “Personal Representative.”  The Relf Court found a substantive difference between the terms, and held that the difference is essential in determining whether Section 13-209(c) has been triggered.  A Special Administrator is appointed where a decedent has no will, and an estate has not been opened.  A Personal Representative is an individual appointed where there is an estate, and is charged by the letters of office to handle the affairs of the estate.  This distinction is made obvious elsewhere in 13-209, specifically subsections (b)(1) and (2).  In (b)(1), where an estate has been opened, the plaintiff must serve the “Personal Representative.”  On the other hand, in (b)(2), where there has been “no petition. . . for letters of office for the deceased’s estate,” the plaintiff may have a Special Representative appointed and proceed against the representative.

Because an estate had been opened on behalf of Mr. Pre and letters of office had been issued to his son, once Ms. Relf became aware of Mr. Pre’s death, she was obligated to serve the son.  Ms. Relf’s choice to forego amending the complaint and serving the son, as required by the statute, was fatal to her case.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Relf case is the fact that the Supreme Court went outside of the Code of Civil Procedure’s specific statutory language relating to the death of a party, instead examining the language in the Probate Act.  In rendering its decision, the Supreme Court commented on its method of analysis, noting that “it is appropriate to consider similar and related enactments. . .” and “[w]e must presume that several statutes relating to the same subject are governed by one spirit and a single policy, and that the legislature intend the several statutes to be consistent and harmonious.”

The Supreme Court’s decision should spur defendants to consider whether they have a Relf defense where a plaintiff amends a complaint that has named a decedent as a defendant, instead of the decedent’s estate. Plaintiffs also now have a roadmap for understanding how to comply with 735 ILCS 5/13-209(c).  Finally, all litigants should be aware of the Supreme Court’s willingness to clarify and harmonize statutory ambiguities by looking to other Illinois statutes for guidance.

Ryan T. Armour

Ryan T. Armour

Ryan Armour is a partner in the firm’s Rockford office where he focuses his practice primarily on medical malpractice defense litigation.

Stephen J. Gorski

Stephen J. Gorski

Stephen Gorski is an associate in the firm’s Rockford office where he focuses his practice on medical malpractice and civil rights defense litigation