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Kelsay v. Motorola

OPINION FILED AUGUST 31, 1977.

MARILYN JO KELSAY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,

v.

MOTOROLA, INC., DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Livingston County; the Hon. SAM HARROD, III, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE TRAPP DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff's complaint alleged that defendant wrongfully discharged plaintiff from her employment following the filing of her claim for injury under the Workmen's Compensation Act. Characterizing defendant's conduct as wilful and wanton, plaintiff sought actual damages in the sum of $4000 and punitive damages amended to the sum of $500,000.

The trial court directed a verdict for plaintiff as to liability and the jury awarded $1000 in actual damages and $25,000 in punitive damages. The awarded actual damages was remitted to $749.

The complaint is framed solely in tort alleging plaintiff's injury in February 1973, in the course of her employment, the filing of an application before the Industrial Commission in March, and that plaintiff was discharged by defendant's personnel manager on June 6, after several conversations concerning the dismissal of the pending application before the Industrial Commission.

The record shows that in November 1973 plaintiff entered into a settlement contract in the sum of $745.50, computed upon a weekly wage of $74. The settlement contract discloses that plaintiff's medical expenses had been paid by the employer and that she had no unpaid expenses for care or treatment.

Defendant's position is that plaintiff's employment may be terminated at any time by either party at will, without liability. The fact that the employment was at will is not disputed. It has been the established rule in Illinois that where the employment relation specifies no fixed duration it is a hiring at will which may be terminated at will with or without cause and with no right of action for discharge. 17 Ill. L. & Prac. Employment §§ 7, 21, 26 (1956); Roemer v. Zurich Insurance Co. (1975), 25 Ill. App.3d 606, 323 N.E.2d 582; Long v. Arthur Rubloff & Co. (1975), 27 Ill. App.3d 1013, 327 N.E.2d 346.

Plaintiff argues that a discharge under such allegation is an act in violation of public policy stated in the Workmen's Compensation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 138.1 et seq.), and as such creates a tortious wrong which authorizes actual and punitive damages.

• 1, 2 The Workmen's Compensation Act was adopted to provide a new system for compensating employees' injuries in place of the common law rights formerly pursued. (Grand Trunk Western Ry. Co. v. Industrial Com. (1919), 291 Ill. 167, 125 N.E. 748.) Its stated purpose is to provide that cases of injury incurred in the course of employment shall be compensated by the industry. Shell Oil Co. v. Industrial Com. (1954), 2 Ill.2d 590, 119 N.E.2d 224.

The Preamble of the Act, approved July, 1951, states the purpose of "providing for the enforcement and administering thereof, and a penalty for its violation * * *."

Section 26 of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 138.26) provides "[a]ny wilful neglect, refusal or failure to do the things required to be done by any section, clause or provision of this Act, on the part of the persons herein required to do them, or any violation of any of the provisions or requirements hereof, or any attempt to obstruct or interfere with any court officer, or any other person charged with the duty of administering or enforcing this Act, is a petty offense" (emphasis supplied) to be enforced by the State's Attorney or the Attorney General upon the request of the Industrial Commission.

At the time of this complaint there was no provision of the Act directed to the question of the right of an employer to discharge an employee at will. On the contrary, established case law in Illinois remained that an employee at will could be discharged without cause. In such circumstance it is appropriate that liability be determined and made clear by the legislative act so that the employer may clearly understand both the rights and liabilities concerned.

Section 11 of the Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1973, ch. 48, par. 138.11), provides:

"The compensation herein provided, together with the provisions of this Act, shall be the measure of the responsibility of any employer engaged in any of the enterprises or ...


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