Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Raymond
S. Sarnow, Judge, presiding.
PRESIDING JUSTICE WILSON DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:
Rehearing denied November 28, 1983.
This appeal is from a judgment of the circuit court of Cook County dismissing counts I, II, V and VI of plaintiff's complaint which alleged libel per se. The issues presented are: (1) whether the trial court erred in its application of the innocent construction rule to defendants' statements which allegedly imputed to plaintiff want of integrity in his business and the commission of a crime; (2) whether defendants' statements constitute libel per se by imputing to plaintiff want of integrity in the discharge of his employment; (3) whether defendants' statements constitute libel per se by accusing plaintiff of the commission of a crime; and (4) whether the innocent construction rule is unconstitutional as applied to multistate libel actions. We affirm in part and reverse in part.
The article upon which the complaint was based appeared in two segments on April 26 and 27, 1976, in the Wall Street Journal, which is published by defendant Dow Jones and Company (Dow Jones) and is circulated in Illinois and throughout the United States. The article reported a statement made by defendant G.D. Searle and Company (Searle) concerning plaintiff, a former Searle executive. The pertinent portion of the article stated:
"In another development, Searle disclosed that two top officers involved in the payment of $1.3 million to agents of foreign governments to win business abroad have resigned. William Owens, a director and group vice-president in charge of the medical instruments division, and Robert Crinkley, president of the radiographics division, quit in early February. A brief reference to Mr. Owens' resignation was in the annual report but the reason wasn't mentioned. A spokesman said the two were the only resignations to result from the disclosures about payoffs.
In February, after the resignations, Searle told the Securities and Exchange Commission that `certain members of corporate management were generally aware that some such payments were being made and, in some instances, authorized the arrangements to make payments.'
In reference to the possibility of a grand jury indictment and conviction, Mr. Searle refused to say that any officer found guilty would be fired. That would depend on `the nature of the trial and the accusation' he said."
Counts I, II, V and VI of plaintiff's complaint alleged two counts of defamation against each defendant on the theory that the aforementioned statements were completely false; that they were known by Searle to be false; that in the exercise of customary, prudent and accepted journalistic practice Dow Jones could have ascertained that the statements were false; and that the Wall Street Journal failed and neglected to exercise such customary, prudent and accepted practice.
Counts I and II alleged a claim against Dow Jones based on libel. Count V alleged that the false statements made by an agent of Searle to Dow Jones were defamatory and sought damages for injury to plaintiff's good name, credit and reputation, both personally and in the business community. Count VI sought additional damages for injury to plaintiff's general good reputation for honesty and integrity. *fn1
In response, defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a cause of action for libel or slander pursuant to section 45 of the Civil Practice Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1977, ch. 110, par. 45), now codified as section 2-615 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1981, ch. 110, par. 2-615). Defendants' amended motions alleged that the statements are capable of a nondefamatory, innocent meaning. *fn2 On January 21, 1981, the trial court dismissed the action with prejudice. The court commented tangentially that this case "invite[s] the incisiveness of the innocent construction rule." The memorandum order thus does not credit the rule as the basis for the dismissal.
Plaintiff appealed and on his motion we granted a stay of oral argument until the Illinois Supreme Court rendered its decision in a related case, Chapski v. Copley Press (1982), 92 Ill.2d 344, 442 N.E.2d 195. Subsequent to the court's ruling, we granted defendants' motion for leave to file supplemental briefs as to the effect of the Chapski decision on this appeal.
• 1 Initially, plaintiff contends that the statements made by Searle in the article constitute libel per se and that application of the innocent construction rule would be improper. *fn3 He contends further that even if the words ...