APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. PAUL F.
ELWARD and the Hon. JAMES L. GRIFFIN, Judges, presiding.
MR. JUSTICE MCNAMARA DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
This matter arises out of an action for libel per se brought by plaintiff, Garber-Pierre Food Products, Inc., an Illinois corporation, against defendant, Clarence J. Crooks, for statements contained in a letter written by defendant. After the trial court granted summary judgment as to liability in favor of plaintiff, a jury returned a verdict assessing punitive damages in the sum of $20,000, and the court entered judgment on the verdict. Defendant appeals.
Plaintiff, a food wholesaler, was a supplier and creditor of Hamlin House, Inc., a nursing home. Defendant represented Hamlin in a bankruptcy proceeding. On April 21, 1977, plaintiff's attorney wrote to the bankruptcy judge, the attorney for the creditors' committee, and defendant. In the letter, plaintiff resigned from the creditors' committee and stated that it had stopped dealing with Hamlin because the debtor was unable to pay for products bought and delivered. In response, on May 4, 1977, defendant wrote the following letter:
On behalf of the Debtor-in-Possession, please consider this letter as a response of the true and accurate facts of the situation of the facility in contrast with the distortions and inaccuracies as presented by the Attorney for the GARBER-PIERRE FOOD PRODUCTS, INC. on April 24, 1977.
The facts are very simple. The Debtor-in-Possession refused to be blackmailed, extorted or gouged. The Debtor-in-Possession was advised that GARBER-PIERRE FOODS would only make C.O.D. deliveries.
The Debtor-in-Possession advised the creditor that credit of not more than thirty days would be required. The Creditor refused to make such deliveries. Thereupon the Debtor-in-Possession contacted another creditor or supplier who agreed to credit extension. In addition thereto, the prices charged Debtor-in-Possession by the subsequent replacement supplier was less than was being charged by GARBER-PIERRE FOODS.
I should indicate and suggest that other creditors have attempted to blackmail the facility. They have felt that due to the fact that they have been dealing with the facility for a substantial period of years, the facility had no other alternative except to deal with them exclusively. Some of these creditors, not all, have charged prices higher than what we have found their competitors have charged the facility. Therefore, in good conscience, we felt that we could not continue doing business with such creditors and have changed when it has been economically profitable for the facility to do so.
We recognize and appreciate that unless we maintain the good will of the creditors of the facility, the facility will not survive. In addition thereto, without the good will of the creditors, the facility would not have existed as long as it has. However, I think you will agree, that blackmail and extortion is not a course of action which the facility must except [sic] without question.
I trust the creditor, GARBER-PIERRE FOOD PRODUCTS, INC., will reconsider it's [sic] position. However, in the event it doesn't do so, I still think the facility will develop an adequate and satisfactory plan for payment for all of its creditors.
cc: The Honorable Richard L. Merrick Garber-Pierre Food Products, Inc. Ralph G. Scheu Norbert Teclaw Dave Taylor J. Jeffrey ...