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Schuppenhauer v. People Gas Light & Coke Co.

JULY 3, 1975.

WILLIAM E. SCHUPPENHAUER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

PEOPLES GAS LIGHT & COKE COMPANY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. CHARLES R. BARRETT, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE DEMPSEY DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

In 1963 William Schuppenhauer filed an action for an accounting against the People Gas Light & Coke Company, for the company's use of cost-saving ideas allegedly disclosed by him in confidence 30 years earlier to company officers pursuant to an understanding that if his suggestions were employed by the company he would be paid an agreed proportion of the resulting savings. The cause was assigned to a master in chancery to determine the truth of the allegations of the complaint and whether they gave rise to an enforceable obligation by the defendant. In 1966 the master heard the plaintiff's case which consisted solely of Schuppenhauer's own testimony, and received in evidence a number of exhibits. He submitted a report in 1969, and a supplemental report in 1971, concluding that the evidence demonstrated the company's liability. However, the chancellor sustained the defendant's exceptions to the reports, found that the competent evidence did not make out a prima facie case, and ordered the cause dismissed with prejudice.

Our disposition of Schuppenhauer's appeal turns upon the adequacy of his testimony regarding the events of 1933. The company officers with whom he conversed in 1933 were no longer living at the time he testified and his alleged conversations with them were stricken. He raises two issues: (1) whether, if all the conversations were properly stricken, there nevertheless remains in the record evidence of transactions with those officers which proves the creation of an enforceable obligation; and (2), whether the trial court erred in striking his testimony of conversations with and admissions by these agents which took place in the presence of another agent, Frank Griffith, who was living at the time Schuppenhauer testified, but who died after the plaintiff's case had been completed before the master.

In 1933, the plaintiff, a wholesaler of confections, operated the William E. Schuppenhauer Service from his home. Through the latter operation he promoted a cost-savings plan for firms with large billing operations. The plan was printed on a two-page folder and was summarized in the document's opening paragraph:

"Write all drafts, checks, including dividend drafts or checks, invoices, requisitions, statements (not due), notices, etc., which are sent by mail in envelopes and can be condensed sufficiently, on postal or post-cards with or without a reply card attached and utilize all possible space thereon to bring about the desired result in conjunction with or without an exact copy for the files."

The plan envisoned savings in labor, paper and postage costs.

Schuppenhauer testified that beginning in July of 1933 he wrote repeatedly to solicit interviews with several officers of the defendant, including George Mitchell, its president. Carbon copies of several letters were introduced. The text of the July 15 letter to Mitchell is representative of these communications:

"Dear Mr. Mitchell: —

If we stop a profit `leak', — you will increase your net profits.

If you see and adopt our suggestion, our fees will be only a portion of your savings for a short while for our services in bringing our Cost Cutting Plan to you. If you do not adopt our suggestion, YOU OWE US NOTHING. You will be the sole judge of the usefulness of the idea.

Certainly you can't lose. You can only win.

It costs you nothing to talk it over.

Just have your secretary return the enclosed post card.

Yours for greater net profits. WM. E. ...


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