Written by attorney Michael James Perillo Jr.

Punitive Damages and the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act

In Vincent v. Alden Park Strathmore Inc., the estate of a deceased nursing home resident attempted to bring a claim for punitive damages under the Illinois Nursing Home Care Act (NHCA).

Punitive damages can be awarded in Illinois to a plaintiff in cases where the trier of fact determines that the defendant’s conduct toward the plaintiff was willful and wanton. The Illinois Supreme Court’s opinion in the Vincent case (published on March 11, 2011) stands for the proposition that a punitive damages claim does NOT “survive the death of the nursing home resident on whose behalf the cause of action was brought," nor can a punitive damages claim be brought in such circumstances under the Nursing Home Care Act.

As stated in the opinion, punitive damages cannot be brought in Illinois on behalf of a claimant who has died nor can the late claimant’s estate bring such an action. Stated another way, a punitive damages claim “dies" along with the plaintiff/claimant. The claimant’s survivors cannot bring the claimant’s punitive damages claim subsequent to the death of that claimant.

The Illinois Nursing Home Care Act (NHCA) provides protections for nursing home residents. Among other provisions, the NHCA makes owners and licensees of nursing homes liable for the negligent and/or intentional acts of their agents and employees. Intentional acts are often involved in punitive damages cases. So then, if the nursing home’s employees are negligent or commit an intentional tort against a resident, the owners and licensees of the home are liable to that individual resident.

The Act does not specifically permit the estate of a deceased nursing home resident to bring a punitive damages claim citing the gross negligence or intentional conduct of the defendant (or the defendant’s employees or agents) against the resident during his/her lifetime. The absence of statutory language permitting such a claim provides the basis for the holding in Vincent.

The NHCA does however direct that the defendant pay the attorney’s fees of the successful nursing home plaintiff. Attorney’s fees are generally NOT awarded to successful litigants in this country. The exception to this general proposition involves particular statutes like the NHCA. A statute can require a defendant to pay the successful plaintiff/litigant’s reasonable attorney’s fees. Such is the case with the NHCA.

While the estate of a deceased nursing home resident is barred from bringing a punitive damages claim, it is NOT barred from bringing wrongful death and/or survival actions against the home. The survivors of the deceased may certainly bring those claims their loved one could have brought against the facility; the survivors may also bring wrongful death claims if warranted. The Vincent holding simply bars the survivors from bringing punitive damages claims which could have been asserted by the deceased.

The estate (the survivors of the deceased) will be entitled to an award of attorney’s fees in the event it is successful in prosecuting its claims at trial.

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