The basic rule of res judicata is easy enough to state: a final judgment on the merits by a court with jurisdiction bars any further actions by the parties or their privies on the same claim. But what judgments (or orders) are “final”? And what’s a “claim”? The Illinois Supreme Court delved into those important questions this morning, unanimously reversing the Second District’s decision in Wilson v. Edward Hospital [pdf].

Wilson arose when one of the plaintiffs – then a minor – suffered a brain injury during a routine operation for a broken leg. The plaintiff and his mother sued the doctors involved and the defendant hospital, alleging that the hospital was liable as the principal of the doctors. The hospital moved for summary judgment, which was granted in part: the Circuit Court held that the doctors were not the actual agents of the hospital, but that a question of fact existed as to apparent agency. But then, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their complaint.

The plaintiffs were back a year later, refiling their claims and once again alleging apparent agency. The hospital moved to dismiss on res judicata grounds, arguing that the “final judgment” on the actual agency “claim” barred the new action. The Circuit Court denied the hospital’s motion to dismiss, but certified the question of whether actual and apparent agency were separate claims for purposes of res judicata and the rule against claim splitting. The Appellate Court answered that they were, and the new action was therefore barred. Judge Seminara-Schostok specially concurred in the Appellate Court’s holding, but urged the Supreme Court to grant leave to appeal in order to reconsider the application of res judicata and the rule against claim splitting to voluntarily dismissed actions.

In an opinion by Justice Rita B. Garman, the Supreme Court reversed. Rather than addressing the issue of whether the doctrine of res judicata applies at all to voluntarily dismissals, the Court ruled more narrowly, finding that the traditional elements of res judicata were not present.

The Court began with the issue of whether or not a “final” judgment had been entered in the first action, a necessary prerequisite to res judicata. The Court held that because actual agency and apparent agency were not separate claims, no final judgment had been entered, overruling Williams v. Ingalls Memorial Hospital, a year-old decision of the Appellate Court which had reached the opposite result on similar facts. A single cause of action can give rise to several different theories of recovery, the Court emphasized. The Court cited with approval to the definition of a “claim” found in Black’s Law Dictionary: “[t]he aggregate of operative facts giving rise to a right enforceable by a court.” Accordingly, the plaintiffs in Wilson had a single cause of action against the hospital for negligence, and the Circuit Court’s initial order had merely eliminated certain legal conclusions pled in support of that claim, rather than wiping out an entire claim.