Relation Back Of Amendment A Limitations Issue, So Illinois Supreme Court Rules De Novo Standard Applies

A medical malpractice case raised the question of the correct standard of review of a ruling on whether an amended complaint relates back to the original complaint. In this case, the trial court ruled the amendment did not relate back, and thus was late under the statute of limitations.

Larry Porter sued his doctor and Decatur Memorial Hospital for malpractice in connection with his treatment for a spinal cord injury. After some discovery, Larry tried to file an amended complaint that added a new count against another doctor at the hospital.

Over objection by the hospital, the trial court first granted Larry’s motion for leave to amend. After it was filed, the hospital moved to dismiss the amended complaint because it was filed after the statute of limitations expired. The hospital argued that the amendment did not relate back to the original complaint. This time, the trial court agreed with the hospital, and granted the motion to dismiss the amendment.

Larry then moved to reconsider the dismissal of the amendment. The trial court denied that motion, and also decided that the original order allowing the amendment to be filed was inconsistent with the order that dismissed the amendment. So the trial court revised its earlier ruling to show a denial of leave to amend.

Larry appealed the orders granting the hospital’s dismissal motion and denying his motion to reconsider. The appellate court affirmed the trial court.

Larry took the case to the Illinois Supreme Court. The first question was the proper standard of review. The appellate court used an “abuse of discretion” standard, “apparently believing that because the trial court revised its earlier ruling that had granted leave to amend to be consistent with its later ruling to grant the section 2-619 [statute of limitations] dismissal, it was not actually reviewing a section 2-619 dismissal, but was instead reviewing a routine denial of a motion for leave to amend.”

The Supreme Court disagreed, and ruled that the trial court’s action should be reviewed de novo, just like any other statute of limitations motion. “The circumstances of the present case, however, indicate that the only question considered by the trial court with respect to either ruling was whether the new claim in count III of the second amended complaint related back under section 2-616(b) [leave to amend] so as to avoid the affirmative matter of the bar of the statute of limitations. In this situation, we believe that the appropriate standard of review is de novo.”

The Illinois Supreme Court viewed this as a dispute over the motion to dismiss, thus requiring a de novo standard of review. But what would have happened if the trial court just initially denied the motion for leave to amend? The issue would have been the same — whether the amendment related back to the original complaint — but the standard of review may then have been “abuse of discretion,” as the court of appeals saw it.

Read the whole opinion, Porter v. Decatur Memorial Hospital, No. 104441 (1/25/08), by clicking here.