Argument Report: When Is a Nonsuit a Final Claim for Res Judicata?

With this post, we begin our reports on the oral arguments for the Illinois Supreme Court's September term. In Hernandez v. Bernstein, the first civil case of the term, the Court seems likely to hold that plaintiff's two successive complaints were alternative versions of a single claim, meaning that plaintiff's voluntary dismissal without prejudice of the claim did not preclude the subsequent re-filing of the action.

The facts and lower court ruling in Hernandez are set forth in detail in our argument preview. The plaintiffs sued their former attorneys for failing to advise them of a third party products liability claim related to a workers' compensation claim. The products claim was dismissed as time barred, so the plaintiffs amended to allege that the defendants should have advised them to sue their former lawyers. Not long before trial, with a motion for summary judgment pending, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claim without prejudice. So when the plaintiffs re-filed, was their action barred by res judicata?

Defendants' counsel argued that the "single theory of recovery" analysis applied by the Appellate Court did not fit the circumstances. Rather, the first complaint involved a products liability claim which was wiped out by the trial court, and a new claim for professional negligence was pleaded. Justice Thomas asked counsel what was wrong with the plaintiffs' argument that the case was all a single claim: the law firm's negligence in not informing the plaintiffs of all potential causes of action arising from the injury? Counsel responded that the issue turned on the definition of a claim. The first action involved a set of operative facts that caused injury to the claimant. Later, a different set of operative facts arose -- failure to advise. Justice Thomas followed up by asking what was wrong with the proposition that the initial court order merely adjudicated certain facts in support of the claim -- a claim plaintiffs were given leave to amend? Counsel argued that the initial court order had finally adjudicated a separate products liability claim.

Justices Karmeier, Thomas and Theis each separately pressed counsel on whether the initial order of dismissal without prejudice was final and appealable, even though it expressly stated that dismissal was without prejudice. Counsel responded that the order was final with respect to the products claim, although it only became appealable upon plaintiffs' voluntary dismissal.

Co-counsel for defendants addressed the plaintiffs' alternative argument that res judicata was inapplicable because the plaintiffs had expressly reserved the right to file a new action, arguing that plaintiffs had forfeited the issue by failing to raise it in the trial court. Justice Thomas asked whether, given that plaintiffs were appellees in the Supreme Court, they had a right to affirmance on any theory supported by the record, but counsel pointed out that plaintiffs had been appellants at the Appellate Court.

Plaintiffs' counsel drew few questions. Justice Burke asked how the defendants could have advised plaintiffs of their purported claim for manganese exposure when their relationship with defendants ended before they discovered the claim? Counsel responded that if defendants had sent plaintiff to a physician, the claim might have been discovered earlier. In rebuttal, defendants' counsel again argued that the initial dismissal was a final order which became appealable -- and thus preclusive for res judicata purposes -- when plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims.

Join us back here later today for a recap of the argument in Center Partners, Ltd. v. Growth Head GP, LLC, a case about whether subject matter waiver of attorney-client communications extends beyond litigation to business transactions.

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