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Tunney v. Abc

OPINION FILED SEPTEMBER 17, 1982.

WILLIAM J. TUNNEY, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

AMERICAN BROADCASTING COMPANY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES. — (JACQUELINE HEDGES ET AL., DEFENDANTS.)



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Nathan B. Engelstein, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE MEJDA DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Rehearing denied November 10, 1982.

Plaintiff brought suit for damages for alleged libel and slander based on a television news story broadcast by American Broadcasting Company and WLS TV. The court granted ABC's motion for summary judgment. Plaintiff appeals.

The issue on appeal is whether the granting of summary judgment was proper.

Plaintiff filed a two-count complaint for libel and slander. Count I was directed against American Broadcasting Company and WLS TV, its subsidiary (hereinafter referred to collectively as ABC). Count II was directed against four individual defendants who were subsequently dismissed as a result of plaintiff's voluntary non-suit. Only count I is involved in this appeal. Count I alleged in pertinent part that on June 5, 1975, ABC and its subsidiary WLS through their employee, Robert Petty, broadcast a report containing a false statement about plaintiff. The broadcast is set forth in its entirety below, with the words plaintiff claims as libelous italicized:

"Village inspectors are checking a long list of complaints being made by eleven homeowners in this relatively new subdivision. Cracked concrete and sidewalks is one of the most common complaints against the builder, William J. Tunney, who says such occurrences are not his fault, but an Act of God. But sinking driveways, leaking roofs and similar complaints are obviously the result of poor construction.

This house cost its owner more than $40,000, as all of these houses in this area cost. According to inspectors, the entire house, which is less than one year old, needs tuckpointing.

William J. Tunney would not consent to be interviewed on TV but we did talk for 10 to 15 minutes or so. But he told me that he has been in the homebuilding business for more than 25 years. He says that he has built more than 60 homes in this particular section of Dolton, and he says of all those homes so far, only 10 or 12 people are complaining and he says that all of those complaints will be satisfied, given time. Bob Petty, Channel 7."

The complaint further alleged that plaintiff was the owner of a construction company and that by this broadcast defendants inferred that plaintiff built shoddy homes. ABC denied in substance the allegations of count I.

ABC filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting in pertinent part that the language contained in the broadcast was non-actionable under the Illinois rule of innocent construction; that the challenged language was fair comment on matters of public interest; and that the language was protected under the privilege of neutral reporting pursuant to the first and fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution and article I, section 4 of the Illinois Constitution.

In support of the motion ABC submitted the affidavits of Robert Petty, describing his investigation of the story; that of Robert O. Shackleton, a village of Dolton building inspector, attesting to the truth of a letter he sent to the Dolton Building Commissioner articulating his inspection of complaints received concerning homes built by Tunney Construction Co.; and that of LaVerne S. Cothroll, village clerk of the village of Dolton, certifying the correctness of attached minutes of the village of Dolton board meetings held on June 3 and June 10, 1975. The minutes noted that a letter and petition from 11 Dolton residents were presented to the clerk of the village of Dolton requesting a moratorium on construction in Dolton by William Tunney Construction Co.

Plaintiff filed a counteraffidavit and a "Response to Motion for Summary Judgment."

After considering the memoranda of counsel, oral argument, tendered exhibits and depositions, the court granted ...


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