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Griggs v. Bd. of Fire Commissioners





APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. ARTHUR L. DUNNE, Judge, presiding.


On administrative review, the trial court affirmed a decision of the Board of Commissioners of the North Maine Fire Protection District (defendants) suspending William Griggs (plaintiff) for nine days without pay. Statements made by plaintiff were held to violate a regulation of the North Maine Fire Department (department). Plaintiff appeals.

Plaintiff is a fireman and paramedic in the employ of the department. He is also president of the local chapter of the firemen's union. On March 15, 1980, the department's front line ambulance became inoperative. The mechanical breakdown was discovered at 9:20 a.m. Initially it was estimated the repairs would take approximately 30 minutes to complete. However, the actual time of repair was approximately two hours. The officer in charge at the time of the incident, Lieutenant Kampka, contacted the Regional Emergency Dispatch Center, which informed him it could cover the area while the ambulance was inoperative.

The department also owns a station wagon. The vehicle is generally used by administrative personnel. It is department policy to use this station wagon as a temporary ambulance if the front line ambulance becomes inoperative. The transfer of necessary emergency equipment from the ambulance to the station wagon is readily made in from 2 to 5 minutes.

At the time of the incident, the station wagon was in the possession of Deputy Chief Holtz, who was not on duty. Lieutenant Kampka informed Holtz of the situation and asked him whether he felt it necessary to bring in the station wagon and activate it as a temporary ambulance. Holtz reportedly replied he did not think it was necessary, and did not bring the wagon down to the station. Holtz was not informed that, as above stated, the actual time of repairs was longer than first estimated. During the time the ambulance was inoperative, there were no emergency calls to the department.

Plaintiff was informed of the occurrence by a fellow fireman who thought it was a "matter of importance." Plaintiff thereafter discussed the incident with eight other firemen.

On or about April 7, 1980, plaintiff was contacted by a reporter from The Highlander, a local newspaper. The principal topic of the interview was the local tax situation and the loss of tax income to the Fire District. The article as published quoted plaintiff as stating that Deputy Chief Holtz "refused to bring the other ambulance to the station." The article also contains a statement by plaintiff that Regional Emergency Dispatch Center had agreed to cover the area in the case of an emergency call. The article also reports a statement by Deputy Chief Holtz that he carries his "page everywhere I go" so he could "respond within a few minutes" and that he told the men that if the ambulance was "down longer than planned, I would bring the other one back."

Section 5.17 of the Rules and Regulations of the department provides:

"Discrediting Other Members. No member of the department shall wantonly or maliciously make or circulate or cause to circulate any false report regarding any other member, calculated to bring such member into discredit."

In the proceedings below, defendants found plaintiff's statement was knowingly false and maliciously intended to discredit Deputy Chief Holtz in violation of the above regulation. On administrative review, the trial court sustained his suspension. Defendants' argument in this court stresses the inaccuracy of the word "refused" in plaintiff's statement. Defendants contend because Deputy Chief Holtz was neither "ordered" nor "requested" to return the vehicle, he could not have "refused" to return it.

Plaintiff argues the statement was "substantially" correct particularly in light of the "innocent construction rule" and the statement was protected by the first amendment.

In our opinion, the factual issue here is one of plaintiff's intent in making the published statement. The regulation is directed against wanton or malicious circulation of a false report. Defendants cite the legal or technical definition of "refusal" as stated in Black's Law Dictionary 1152 (5th ed. 1979). This authority defines the word at length as including, "A rejection, a denial of what is asked." However, the problem here is not the precise legal definition of the word but rather the ascertainment of the intent of plaintiff who is not a lawyer but a fireman. A simple definition of the word is thus more applicable to the case at bar.

"Refuse" is defined as "1: avoid, shun 2: to decline to accept: reject * * * 3a: to show or express a positive unwillingness to do or comply with (as something asked, demanded, expected) * * *." (Webster's Third International Dictionary 1910 (16th ed. 1971).) Defendant's argument appears based on the third definition; to exhibit a positive unwillingness to do something asked or demanded. While Deputy Chief Holtz may not have positively exhibited an "unwillingness to comply," his actions could possibly be categorized as a "declination to accept" an invitation to return the vehicle.

We believe the matter here is best solved by application of the innocent construction rule. In John v. Tribune Co. (1962), 24 Ill.2d 437, 442, 181 N.E.2d 105, cert. denied (1962), 371 U.S. 877, 9 L.Ed.2d 114, 83 S.Ct. 148, the supreme court held that "words allegedly libelous that are capable of being read innocently must be so read and declared non-actionable as a matter of law." Although John involved an action in libel while the case at bar does not, John is applicable because by specifying the statement must be made "wantonly or maliciously," "false" and calculated "to discredit," the regulation ...

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