Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County; the Hon.
CARL H. BECKER, Judge, presiding. Affirmed.
The Circuit Court of St. Clair County on defendant's motion dismissed plaintiff's cause of action for libel.
The sole question presented is the sufficiency of plaintiff's complaint.
On July 27, 1967, plaintiff filed its complaint alleging that prior to July 14, 1966, it was engaged in the operation of a nursing home for the ill and infirm and that among its patients were subnormal and mentally retarded children, some of which are wards of the State of Illinois, placed in the home by authorized agencies of the State; that it extended to subnormal and mentally retarded children the custody and care required of it and operated the institution under such conditions as are required.
That on or after June 1, 1966, and at times prior and subsequent thereto the defendant, through its editors, reporters, agents and servants, did conspire and confederate with one Jack McAllister, a former convict, Edith Heide, an employee of the Illinois Department of Public Health, William Boyne, Melvin Luna, and other persons unknown to the plaintiff, to cause to be printed, published, circulated and distributed in defendant's newspaper certain statements pertaining to the operations of plaintiff's nursing home and the care of its patients.
The alleged libelous newspaper accounts went into a great amount of detail to describe conditions at the home and its operation; these included lack of adequately trained personnel and supervision, acts of cruelty toward and physical abuse of the patients, lack of medical attention and lack of physical supervision of the patients. The accounts also recited diet deficiencies resulting in malnutrition and lack of sanitary care. The accounts were based on reports and interviews with persons who had visited the home or who had contact with the patients after their transfer to other facilities. They recited the deaths of several of the patients and suggested they resulted from the deficiencies and a substandard operation.
The accounts further charged State authorities with being lax in their responsibility toward their wards at the plaintiff's center, and for shunting responsibility from one to another. It was pointed out that funds for the care of the State's wards are authorized by the State Department of Mental Health, the licensing is delegated by the Department of Public Health to the East Side Health District, and the Department of Children and Family Services placed youngsters in plaintiff's center and no public agency exercised its responsibility in the case.
Plaintiff further alleges that the facts published by defendant are false and that the articles published were and were meant by the defendant to be a single connected attack on the plaintiff, and the intermixture of non-accusatory assertions was designed to create an atmosphere of authenticity to hurt and damage the plaintiff, and that the conduct of the defendant was malicious and designed to harm the plaintiff in its business.
Several issues have been presented by this appeal, (1) was the subject matter of the several publications of sufficient public interest and concern to permit the application of the qualified or privileged doctrine, (2) the sufficiency of the allegations of the complaint, and (3) the Statute of Limitations.
In New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 11 L Ed2d 686, it was held that before a public official "May recover in libel it must be established that the article was published by the newspaper with actual malice, that is, with knowledge it was false or with such a reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."
New York Times in itself did not define who may be a public official, however the court quoted with approval Coleman v. MacLennan, 78 Kan. 711, 98 P. 281, which said, "This privilege extends to a great variety of subjects, and includes matters of pubic concern, public men, and candidates for office."
In his work on the Law of Torts, 2nd Ed, 1955, Prosser in chapter 19, section 95, states at p 620, "The press, or anyone else, is privileged to discuss the administration of public affairs, and the conduct or qualifications of public officers or candidates and public employees as well as work to be paid for out of public funds . . . in which the public has a legitimate interest."
In the Restatement of the Law of Torts, chapter 25, section 607, it is said that the privilege of criticism applicable to public officials extends to criticizing the work of independent contractors paid for out of public funds, and the work of employees of such contractors.
The conditional privilege afforded the press has been held to be applicable to public persons as well as public officials. Curtis Pub. Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 18 L Ed2d 1094, 87 S Ct 1975.
In Turley v. W.T.A.X., Inc., 94 Ill. App.2d 377, 236 N.E.2d 778, the conditional privilege rule was applied to a professional architect-structural engineer who was employed in his professional capacity to design, acquire furnishings and equipment for a county building in Sangamon County, Illinois.
The Supreme Court of Delaware in News-Journal Co. v. Gallagher (Del), 233 A.2d 166 (1967), in holding that the conditional privilege applied to comments made against one who was performing for a fee, work for the State Highway Department in collecting rentals on houses condemned by the Highway Department, had this to say in commenting whether or not the plaintiff was a public officer within the meaning of the New York Times rule, "Whether or not that be true, it cannot be disputed that he was a public figure in the city and county by virtue of his political position. Moreover the publicity arose out of work he was performing for the State."
The Supreme Court of the United States in Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75, 15 L Ed2d 597, 86 S Ct 669, in determining the status of the superintendent of a county owned ski lift stated, "The thrust of the New York Times is that when interests and public discussion are particularly strong, . . . the Constitution limits the protections afforded by the law of defamation. Where a position in government has such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in the qualifications and performance of the person who holds it, beyond the general public interest in the qualifications ...