APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cass County; the Hon. LYLE E.
LIPE, Judge, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE ALLOY DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Rehearing denied March 7, 1972.
Defendant Marjorie Taylor appeals from a verdict and judgment rendered against her for the sum of $75,775 in the slander action instituted by plaintiff Monty M. Stanley in the Circuit Court of Cass County.
When the incident occurred which gave rise to the present action, plaintiff was principal of Virginia High School, Virginia, Illinois, and defendant was a teacher in the same school. Plaintiff, who had no previous experience as a principal, had been employed by the school in August, 1963, while defendant had been a teacher there since September, 1954. On the evening of December 2, 1963, the mother of defendant suffered a stroke and defendant sat up in a hospital for almost all of the night. She was called away from the school to the hospital the following morning, but returned and held her afternoon history class after which she again left the school and went to the hospital. Her movements in and out of the school, it appears, were not coordinated with plaintiff and there was uncertainty among the students as to whether her afternoon class would be held.
The day following, December 4, 1963, at the opening of her history class at 1:05 P.M., defendant sent a girl student to plaintiff's office, adjacent to the classroom, to obtain an "admittance slip," inasmuch as the student had been absent from the prior day's class. She was absent, it appears, because she had spent the time in the school gymnasium assisting a coach in the painting of a decoration. When the student came back to the classroom without the slip, defendant accompanied her back to plaintiff's office. Several persons were present in the office at the time, and it was further testified that loud voices in the office could be heard in nearby classrooms.
While numerous witnesses gave their version of what transpired and was said, we find it necessary for purposes of this opinion to detail only the substance of plaintiff's testimony. According to him, he was not certain whether the student was to have an "admit" slip or a "tardy" slip, and while he was discussing it with the student, defendant entered his office, started beating her fist on his desk and stated: "Mr. Stanley, I want you to know, did you ever see anything more ridiculous in your life than this girl down in the gym drawing a picture of a silly old red bird for the coach when she should have been in my history class?" Plaintiff stated that he did not reply, and that defendant next said: "I would like to know what this school system is coming to, anyway you are the poorest excuse for a principal I have ever seen in my life. You sit there all day long and write excuse after excuse. Excused. Excused. Excused. That's the only word you know how to write. In fact, I think you are plain stupid when you will sit and allow things like this to take place. In fact you are not qualified to be a principal. I have checked your record. You are a disgrace to the profession." These words shall hereinafter be referred to as the "first utterance."
After an exchange of words about taking the matter up with the school superintendent, and also reporting it to a member of the school board, plaintiff said he "would guarantee" that either he or defendant would "not be back next year," and to this defendant is said to have replied that it would be plaintiff who would be gone. At about this time one of the other teachers in the office remarked that defendant "had been under an awful strain" and "needed a rest," and, at this, plaintiff testified to an exchange of words as follows: "She said, `What did you say to me all day yesterday in sympathy about my mother in the hospital?' I said: `Miss Taylor, I didn't know who was in the hospital until Mrs. Gutekunst told me the one was your mother.' She said: `I shouldn't have had to have told you. Everyone else knew it.' Again, she said: `I still want to know. Did you ever see anything more ridiculous than this girl down in the gym drawing a picture of a silly old red bird for a coach when she should have been in my U.S. History class?' I said: `Yes, Miss Taylor, I do know something more ridiculous.' I said: `You left your classroom yesterday. You left the town without my knowledge as principal of this school district in full charge of administration in absence of the superintendent.' Then is when she said. `You are just like that old Lee Harvey Oswald that shot and killed President Kennedy, and that old Jack Ruby who shot and killed him in Dallas.' I stood up and said: `Miss Taylor, I may not be able to get you fired, but I'm taking this before the Board of Education. I'm going to recommend revocation of your teaching certificate, and I'm going to push it all the way, because I don't think a teacher like you, that will talk and act like you are acting in the presence of these students has any business in a classroom.' Mr. Henderson and Mrs. Gutekunst, at that point, got her out of the office."
Continuing with the testimony of plaintiff, he stated that he then stepped to the door of defendant's classroom and told the students to be quiet until their teacher could return. He then apparently encountered defendant in an area we take to have been in a corridor outside the classroom and she reportedly stated: "I said it. I'm glad I said it and I say it again. You are nothing but a Lee Harvey Oswald and a Jack Ruby." Plaintiff testified that he then decided to monitor defendant's class, although he had never done so before, and while he was in her classroom he said to her: "I would like to get one thing straight. Did you compare me with Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby in Dallas, Texas?", to which she replied: "That's right, I did. The one that shot and killed the President, and the other shot and killed the other. It is people like you who think and act the way you think and act, that causes them to do all they did." The references to Oswald and Ruby shall hereinafter be referred to, collectively, as the "Oswald-Ruby" utterances.
We interject, in passing, that no witness testified precisely to having heard the utterances as testified to by plaintiff. In varying degrees, however, some corroborated in substance that the Oswald-Ruby comparison had been made, and that defendant had questioned plaintiff's qualification as principal. Defendant testified she could not remember what was said, and others testifying in her behalf stated they did not hear the utterances attributed to her, although in a position to do so.
The original complaint was filed November 23, 1964, and after long pleading delays the cause came to trial on the issues formed by a third amended complaint of two counts, and defendant's answer and affirmative defenses thereto. Both counts pleaded the "first utterance" in words substantially the same as plaintiff's testimony, and both also pleaded what appears to be a selected composite taken from the three "Oswald-Ruby utterances." Count I was based on a theory that both utterances were slander per se, while Count II was predicated on a theory that they were both slander per quod and alleged special damages. The distinction between the two theories is succinctly set forth in 33A I.L.P., Slander and Libel, par. 11, at Page 24, where it is said:
"Defamatory words may be divided into those words which are actionable per se, and those which are actionable per quod. The difference between defamatory words actionable per se and those which are actionable per quod is that in those words which are actionable per se damages need not be specially proved and malice will be implied, whereas in those words which are actionable per quod only, malice and damages must be proved.
A publication is libelous per se if it is so obviously and naturally hurtful to the person aggrieved that proof of injurious character can be, and is, dispensed with. Words actionable per quod are those which require an innuendo to give them a slanderous or libelous meaning and require evidence to show that as a matter of fact some substantial injury has followed from their use."
See also: Whitby v. Associates Discount Corp., 59 Ill. App.2d 337; Ward v. Forest Preserve Dist., 13 Ill. App.2d 257.
At the conference on jury instructions plaintiff was permitted to file a fourth amended complaint which, for all practical purposes, was substantially the same as the third amended complaint, the only notable exception being that Count I prayed for punitive damages as well as general damages. (Since only a general verdict was returned, it is not possible to determine what part of the $75,775.00 verdict, if any, was awarded as punitive damages.) Plaintiff made an election to proceed only on Count I (slander per se), and as a consequence, the jury was instructed only on the issues thereunder. Following the unfavorable verdict, defendant filed a post-trial motion, subsequently denied, wherein she prayed that the judgment entered on the verdict be set aside and for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on grounds, ...