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Matviuw v. Johnson

OPINION FILED MARCH 7, 1979.

WILLIAM D. MATVIUW, M.D., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

JEFFREY B. JOHNSON, M.D., DEFENDANT-APPELLEE. — (ALEXIAN BROTHERS MEDICAL CENTER, INTERVENOR-APPELLEE.)



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. DAVID A. CANEL, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE MCNAMARA DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied April 27, 1979.

Plaintiff, Dr. William D. Matviuw, appeals from an order of the circuit court of Cook County dismissing his complaint for compensatory and punitive damages arising from certain allegedly defamatory remarks made by defendant, Dr. Jeffrey B. Johnson. The trial court found that defendant's remarks were absolutely privileged and were therefore non-actionable as a matter of law. The Alexian Brothers Medical Center intervened in this action and urge that the action of the trial court be upheld. This court has given the Illinois Hospital Association leave to appear as amicus curiae, and it also seeks to have the dismissal of the complaint upheld.

In November 1976, both plaintiff and defendant were members of the department of obstetrics and gynecology of the Alexian Brothers Medical Center, a hospital located in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.

Plaintiff's complaint charged that on November 23, 1976, a special meeting of Alexian's executive committee was convened in reference to two letters written by plaintiff. Plaintiff addressed the committee and departed. The complaint further alleged that subsequently defendant addressed the committee and made several statements regarding plaintiff's professional capabilities. Defendant expressed an unwillingness to continue to work with plaintiff because of plaintiff's dishonest and unethical practices. Defendant also stated that the majority of plaintiff's colleagues had a very low opinion of the latter's abilities. Defendant advised that he had warned several people regarding plaintiff's shoddy practices on occasion and that one such practice had prompted plaintiff's dismissal from another hospital. As an example of plaintiff's alleged incompetence, defendant cited an instance where plaintiff's method of delivery resulted in serious injury to an infant. Defendant also stated that pediatricians' reports of "battered babies" prompted a departmental audit.

In his complaint, plaintiff further alleged that defendant made the statements with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. Plaintiff charged that defendant neither consulted hospital records nor made any investigation to determine the accuracy of his accusations and that defendant was prompted to make the statements out of a desire to injure plaintiff's medical practice and to benefit his own. Plaintiff alleged that as a result of defendant's defamatory remarks he was not reappointed to the Alexian staff, had lost several patients and had been unable to obtain new patients.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint pursuant to sections 45 and 48 of the Civil Practice Act. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 110, pars. 45, 48.) Defendant relied upon sections 1, 2 and 3 of the Medical Studies Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 51, pars. 101, 102, 103), which provides:

"§ 1. All information, interviews, reports, statements, memoranda or other data of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Illinois State Medical Society, allied medical societies, or committees of accredited hospitals, including Patient Care Audit Committees, Medical Care Evaluation Committees, Utilization Review Committees, Credential Committees and Executive Committees, * * * used in the course of internal quality control or of medical study for the purpose of reducing morbidity or mortality, or for improving patient care, shall be strictly confidential and shall be used only for medical research, the evaluation and improvement of quality care, or granting, limiting or revoking staff privileges, except that the claim of confidentiality shall not be invoked to deny a physician access to or use of data upon which a decision regarding his staff privileges was based.

§ 2. Such information, records, reports, statements, notes, memoranda, or other data, shall not be admissible as evidence in any action of any kind in any court or before any tribunal, board, agency or person.

§ 3. The furnishing of such information in the course of a research project to the Illinois Department of Public Health, Illinois State Medical Society, allied medical societies or to in-hospital staff committees or their authorized representatives, shall not subject any person, hospital, sanitarium, nursing or rest home or any such agency to any action for damages or other relief."

After Alexian was granted leave to intervene, the trial court granted its motion to quash all pending discovery on the ground that the information sought was confidential by virtue of the above-quoted sections of the Medical Studies Act. On April 14, 1978, the trial court dismissed plaintiff's complaint on the ground that the remarks made by defendant to the committee were absolutely privileged.

Plaintiff contends that the trial court erred in holding that the Medical Studies Act creates an absolute privilege to defame. Plaintiff argues that the Act offers only a qualified privilege to statements made before the executive committee of a hospital. He maintains that such a privilege did not warrant dismissal of his complaint.

Appellees argue that the language of the Medical Studies Act, as well as its legislative purpose, supports a construction which accords an absolute privilege to statements made before Alexian's executive committee. They cite the public policy which is promoted by allowing staff members to speak freely on matters regarding the evaluation of their colleagues' performance and improvement of patient care. Appellees suggest that the purpose and effectiveness of hospital committees will be seriously undermined if those testifying cannot be certain that their testimony will not subject them to civil liability. Moreover, appellees maintain that an absolute privilege is necessary to avoid the situation in which a witness would be required to guess beforehand whether the statements will be protected.

• 1 The issue of whether sections 1, 2, and 3 of the Medical Studies Act confer an absolute privilege upon statements made before an executive committee of a hospital is one of first impression in this State. We first note that since an absolute privilege completely forecloses a remedy in a civil action, the class of absolute privileges has traditionally been very limited. (Cook v. East Shore Newspapers, Inc. (1945), 327 Ill. App. 559, 64 N.E.2d 751.) We must ...


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