On the rare occasions that a defendant in a southern Illinois personal injury lawsuit is dead—or dies while the case is pending—you had better know what to do about it before you hit any deadlines. That was the message from the Illinois Supreme Court in Relf v. Shatayeva, a decision denying a plaintiff the opportunity to substitute the executor of the estate for the original defendant. Sandra Relf was injured in a car crash she alleges was the fault of Joseph Grand Pre. Grand Pre had died shortly after the crash, however. Relf didn’t realize this when she sued him over her auto accident injuries. Rather than substitute the executor as Illinois law requires, however, Relf asked the circuit court to have an employee of her attorney appointed as a special administrator to defend the estate. The Illinois Supreme Court upheld dismissal of this case, saying Relf didn’t use reasonable diligence to sue the correct party.
The accident took place in February of 2008, and Grand Pre died in April of that year, creating public records including an obituary and a probate case. However, Relf sued Grand Pre personally in February of 2010, just before the deadline to sue. Not surprisingly, her process server failed to find Grand Pre; she ultimately found out about the death in May of 2010. Because she didn’t notify the court, however, it dismissed her lawsuit for lack of diligence in service.
The Illinois Code of Civil Procedure permits a two-year extension of the statute of limitations when the plaintiff moves to substitute the defendant’s personal representative (who would have been Grand Pre’s son). However, Relf didn’t follow that procedure when she asked to set aside the dismissal that September. Instead, she asked the court to appoint a special administrator to represent the estate, and that this person be her attorney’s secretary, Natasha Shatayeva. The court agreed to this without either party giving any statutory basis for it. Shatayeva moved to dismiss, saying the action against Grand Pre himself could not preserve Relf’s claims because Illinois does not permit lawsuits against dead people, and that Relf failed to follow the conventional personal representative route. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. The Court of Appeals reversed, saying Relf’s attempt to appoint Shatayeva was sufficient to preserve the viability of the action.
But on appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court disagreed. Under the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, the court may appoint a special representative like Shatayeva if there was no personal representative appointed. If the death was not known, the high court said, the plaintiff may substitute a personal representative as long as she moves with reasonable diligence in moving for leave to substitute and to file an amended complaint. But Shatayeva was not a personal representative, the court said, and special representatives are not interchangeable with personal representatives in Illinois law. Furthermore, Relf failed to proceed as Illinois law requires once she did realize Grand Pre was dead, the court said. It declined to allow Relf to follow that procedure now, saying the statute of limitations had already passed.
This case is a good reminder for attorneys to be scrupulous about following set procedures even in unusual situations like this one. Because this plaintiff didn’t follow the rules laid out by Illinois law in this case, courts won’t hear her claim at all, regardless of how much merit it might have. That’s one reason why it’s important to have an experienced auto accident attorney by your side if you’re pursuing a lawsuit in Missouri or southern Illinois. I work with victims of auto accidents, including very bad crashes, so I know that the at-fault driver sometimes dies—but we generally know about that well in advance of filing a lawsuit. If there are early warning signs of a problem—such as not being able to serve the papers on the defendant—we work hard to preserve the claim so our clients can get the financial recoveries they need.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents clients in southern Illinois, St. Louis and across Missouri who have suffered serious injuries because of someone else’s negligence. If you’d like to talk to us about your situation and your legal options, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message through our website.
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