What Happens if the Defendant Dies Before the Complaint is Filed?


Our previews of the civil cases granted review at the end of the November term by the Illinois Supreme Court continue with Relf v. Shatayeva [pdf]. Relf involves a simple question: what happens if you sue somebody who's died?

The plaintiff filed a personal injury complaint against the defendant, alleging that he had negligently operated a motor vehicle, leading to her injuries. Some months after the complaint was filed, the plaintiff learned that the defendant had died only three months after the accident, long before the complaint was filed. Plaintiff filed a motion to spread defendant's death of record, and for leave to appoint a special administrator. The motion was granted, and the plaintiff filed an amended complaint, naming the special administrator as the defendant.

Ultimately, the defendant moved to dismiss on the grounds that the action hadn't named the decedent's personal representative, and hadn't been filed within six months of decedent's death. Accordingly, the defendant argued, the complaint was void pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/13-209(b).

After a hearing, the Circuit Court granted the motion to dismiss.

The Appellate Court (First District, Second Division) reversed. On appeal, the defendant argued that subsection (b) was applicable, since an estate had, in fact, been opened. Nevertheless, the Court held that the action was governed not by Section 13-209(b), but by Section 13-209(c):

If a party commences an action against a deceased person whose death is unknown to the party before the expiration of the time limited for the commencement thereof, and the cause of action survives, and is not otherwise barred, the action may be commenced against the deceased person's personal representative if all of the following terms and conditions are met:

(1) after learning of the death, the party proceeds with reasonable diligence to move the court for leave to file an amended complaint, substituting the personal representative as defendant

(2) the party proceeds with reasonable diligence to serve process upon the personal representative.

The court held that the legislature enacted subsection (c) specifically to address situations where a plaintiff is unaware, at the time of filing, that the defendant is dead. Because the plaintiff had properly proceeded under subsection (c), dismissal was erroneous. Subsection (b) did not apply because it did not contemplate that the plaintiff was unaware of the defendant's death.

Relf will likely be decided within the next four to six months.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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