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Sloan v. Hatton

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 6, 1978.

MELVIN SLOAN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

JERRY L. HATTON ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Macon County; the Hon. DONALD W. MORTHLAND, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE MILLS DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

A case of libel?

No.

The defendant wrote and mailed a letter to Illinois Attorney General William J. Scott stating that the plaintiff "* * * was in the mobile home business and has since had to close his doors mainly because of poor management." The complaint before us alleged that this statement was libelous per se, and therefore plead no special damages.

A motion to dismiss was filed, alleging that such expression was not libelous per se. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case.

We also agree and we affirm.

The background — the record tells us — is essentially this: Sloan sent his nephew, Dennis Yates, to the Attorney General to file a complaint against the defendant. Yates complained that he had been overreached in the purchase of a mobile home, that defendant misled him about the monthly payment, lied to a bank officer, and sold him a mobile home that "has got so much wrong with it" that Yates wanted out. The defendant (a mobile home dealer) replied in a letter to the Attorney General describing his effort to satisfy Yates' dissatisfaction. He twice sent a serviceman to the Yates home, and personally visited their mobile home with a representative from the financing bank. Hatton told the Attorney General that he had agreed to pay for the disputed underpinning, agreed to install air conditioning at his own expense, agreed to pay for new linoleum to be selected by Mrs. Yates, and, finally, offered to take the mobile home back and give Yates the profit on the sale of the trade-in.

This lawsuit is based on the last paragraph of defendant's lengthy letter:

"Basically, I think the Yates's are nice people but they have an uncle by the name of Melvin Sloan, which is prodding them and advising them all the time as to what to do and what not to do. This same uncle was in the mobile home business and has since had to close his doors mainly because of poor management."

The end result is that this is a business defamation suit wherein one man's right to free speech must be balanced against the other man's right to protect his business reputation. We conclude that Illinois law accommodates both of these principles.

Let us see why.

• 1 Free speech is not restricted to compliments. Were this not so there could be no verbal give and take, no meaningful exchange of ideas, and we would be forced to confine ourselves to platitudes and compliments. But members of a free society must be able to express candid opinions and make personal judgments. And those opinions and judgments may be harsh or critical — even abusive — yet still not subject the speaker or writer to civil liability. In Byars v. Kolodziej (1977), 48 Ill. App.3d 1015, 363 N.E.2d 628, this court held that mere expressions of opinion are not always actionable. We put it this way in Byars:

"It cannot be said that every expression of opinion touching a person's capabilities or qualifications constitutes a defamation no matter how much the complained of statement may injure the subject person in his own conception." 48 Ill. App.3d 1015, 1017, 363 N.E.2d 628, 630.

(Also, mere words of abuse are generally not actionable. See 53 C.J.S. Libel & Slander ...


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