September 2016 • Volume 104 • Number 9 • Page 12
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Molly’s Law gives some wrongful death claimants more time to sue
Molly's Law gives plaintiffs more time to bring wrongful death cases that stem from some allegedly intentional and criminal conduct and allows disappointed FOIA requesters to ask the attorney general's office to review denials.
March 24, 2012 was a tragic day for the family of Molly Young, a Carbondale woman who died of a gunshot wound to the head. She was found in the apartment of her boyfriend, Richie Minton. The exact circumstances of her death were never determined.
Molly's father, Larry Young, tried to obtain information related to his daughter's death, but his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests took a long time to process. By the time he filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Minton, whom Young believes shot his daughter, the two-year statute of limitations had expired. Young's case was dismissed as untimely.
As a result of his experiences trying to obtain information about the investigation into his daughter's death, Young began advocating for legislation changing how FOIA requests are processed and extending the statute of limitations to bring wrongful death actions. The bills, which were introduced in February, unanimously passed the House in April. Governor Rauner signed the bills into law on July 19, 2016.
Two new public acts
Public Act 99-0587 is commonly known as "Molly's Law." It amends the Wrongful Death Act, extending the statute of limitations for filing a wrongful death action in certain situations. When an individual dies as the result of violent, intentional conduct, the statute of limitations is extended to five years, as opposed to the normal two-year limitations period. If a criminal case is pending, the limitations period extends to one year after the final disposition of the criminal case. Murder, second degree murder, intentional homicide of an unborn child, both intentional and negligent manslaughter of an unborn child, involuntary manslaughter, and drug-induced homicide qualify for the law's expanded limitations period.
In many of these cases, it may be difficult or impossible to get information about a case while an investigation is pending. Since the limitations clock starts ticking from the date of the individual's death, long delays can lead to families and other survivors left without an appropriate civil remedy.
However, the statute only extends the limitations period as to the individual who allegedly committed the violent act or was a defendant in a criminal matter. Other parties suspected of having been involved with the allegedly wrongful death are still subject to the two-year limitations period. With multiple possible tortfeasors, parties may need to file separate wrongful death actions to preserve their claims.
Developing claims and obtaining information should be made easier by Molly's Law's companion legislation, Public Act 99-0586, which amends the Freedom of Information Act. Section 9.5 of the Act allows individuals whose FOIA requests are denied to seek review from the attorney general's office. If the AG's office determines that a violation of the Act has occurred, it will issue a binding opinion letter. Under the new amendments, requesters may now file their own actions to enforce those opinion letters. (5 ILCS 140/11(a-5).)
Once an opinion is issued, requesters who file an enforcement action enjoy the rebuttable presumption that the public body willfully and intentionally failed to comply with the Act. (5 ILCS 104/11.6.) The public body may rebut the presumption by showing that it was making a good faith effort to comply, but that it was not possible to do so within 35 days.
Public bodies that fail to rebut that presumption, or those that are found by a court to have willfully and intentionally failed to comply, may be penalized between $2,500 and $5,000 per occurrence. The amendments allow courts to impose additional penalties of up to $1,000 per day for each day the violation continues.
The lawsuit continues
One of the things that Larry Young and his attorney argued prevented them from timely filing their wrongful death action was that the Illinois State Police had improperly withheld information from them, some of which did not come to light until 2013. In July 2015, the Attorney General's office agreed with Young and ordered that additional information be disclosed to the family. (See Attorney General Orders Documents Release in Molly Young Case, available on the WSIU website at http://news.wsiu.org/post/attorney-general-orders-documents-release-moll....)
Young had argued that, had the Illinois State Police timely disclosed key information, he would have had the ability to file his lawsuit earlier.
Young appealed the dismissal to the Illinois Court of Appeals, Fifth District. Oral argument was heard on July 28, 2016. (You can listen to the arguments at http://multimedia.illinois.gov/court/AppellateCourt/Audio/2016/5th/072816_5-15-0268.mp3.)
Charles Stegmeyer, Young's attorney argued, among other things, that the statute of limitations should not begin running from the time of Ms. Young's death, but from the date that Mr. Young received the information that he had been requesting. Because it was unclear whether her death was a suicide or a homicide, Stegmeyer argued that the clock did not start ticking until the results of the inquest were received by the Youngs.
Stegmeyer also alleged that the defendant's actions after Molly's death amounted to "fraudulent concealment" that should toll the limitations period. Although they are not applicable to the Young v. Minton lawsuit, Stegmeyer said the passage of Molly's Law is a persuasive reason to rule in his client's favor. While plaintiffs will have an easier time suing in the future, the fate of Young's lawsuit remains unknown.