Out With the New and in With the Old: Why the Illinois Supreme Court went too far in Kirk v. Michael Reese Hospital and not far enough in Renslow v. Mennonite Hospital on the issue of duties owed to third-party non-patients in medical malpractice cases
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When the Illinois Supreme Court decided Renslow v. Mennonite Hospital in 1977 and Kirk v. Michael Reese Hospital in 1987, it was presented with unique facts where a third-party, non-patient was allegedly harmed by a physician’s negligence. In its attempt to determine where the line for liability should be drawn in each case and whether a duty of care should be imposed, the court did not issue rulings that were limited to the facts of each case. Instead, the court created an exception in Renslow and a bright-line rule in Kirk. Unfortunately, not only do such rigid, legal rules not translate well to the field of medicine and science, which is always changing and developing, but they conflict with the notion that judges are to determine the issue of duty as a matter of law on a case-by-case basis. As a result, litigants and judges have struggled with applying the holdings of Renslow and Kirk in unique, real-life cases, often to the detriment of plaintiffs whose claims are dismissed prematurely. This Article argues, in essence, that the Illinois Supreme Court went too far in Kirk when it created a bright-line rule on the issue of duty in cases involving third-party non-patients, but not far enough in Renslow when it created an exception to the general duty principles. In conjunction, the rulings in Renslow and Kirk have resulted in some cases being dismissed prematurely based on a lack of a legal duty. In order to avoid dismissing cases prematurely, while still ensuring that duties are imposed in appropriate cases, the Illinois Supreme Court needs to limit the rulings it handed down in Renslow and Kirk to the facts of each case and go back to allowing judges to determine the issue of duty on a case-by-case basis based on the reasonable foreseeability of the harm. Not only would such an approach be fair and just, it would also be more in line with legal principles that have been recognized in Illinois for decades and would give courts more flexibility in adapting to new scientific and medical developments as they arise.