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American Int'l Hosp. v. Chicago Tribune

OPINION FILED SEPTEMBER 17, 1985.

AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL HOSPITAL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE COMPANY ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Kenneth C. Prince, Judge, presiding.

JUSTICE HARTMAN DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff appeals from the circuit court's dismissal on remand of an amended complaint sounding in libel, raising as issues whether: (1) the defense of truth is applicable; (2) the alleged defamations are actionable in light of the innocent construction rule; and (3) the amended complaint alleges a cause of action for libel per quod.

On September 19, 1980, the following article written by defendant William Gaines was published by defendant Chicago Tribune Company (Tribune):

On the same day, September 19, 1980, plaintiff initiated a defamation action in the circuit court, naming Gaines, the Tribune, and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAH) as defendants. The circuit court dismissed plaintiff's amended complaint, and plaintiff appealed to this court. In American International Hospital v. Chicago Tribune Co. (1983), 120 Ill. App.3d 435, 458 N.E.2d 1305, we reversed the dismissal order and remanded the cause for the circuit court to consider the amended complaint in light of the innocent-construction rule as restated in Chapski v. Copley Press (1982), 92 Ill.2d 344, 442 N.E.2d 195.

Upon remand, Gaines and the Tribune, as well as the JCAH, filed renewed motions to dismiss the complaint. On September 18, 1984, the circuit court entered an order which concluded, as a matter of law, that the language complained of was protected by the defense of truth and was also non-actionable under the prevailing innocent construction rule. The court accordingly dismissed the amended complaint with prejudice from which plaintiff appeals.

I

Plaintiff contends that the circuit court erroneously dismissed the amended complaint on the ground that the allegedly defamatory language was truthful and therefore non-actionable as a matter of law.

• 1 A motion to dismiss admits all well-pleaded facts and reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom. (Knox College v. Celotex Corp. (1981), 88 Ill.2d 407, 426, 430 N.E.2d 976; Davis v. Keystone Printing Service, Inc. (1982), 111 Ill. App.3d 427, 433, 444 N.E.2d 253.) Conclusions of law or fact unsupported by specific factual allegations, however, are not admitted by such a motion. (Knox College v. Celotex Corp. (1981), 88 Ill.2d 407, 430 N.E.2d 976.) In a defamation action, a complaint must clearly identify the specific defamatory material complained of. (Heying v. Simonaitis (1984), 126 Ill. App.3d 157, 163, 466 N.E.2d 1137; Altman v. Amoco Oil Co. (1980), 85 Ill. App.3d 104, 108, 406 N.E.2d 142.) Truth is a defense to a defamation action. (Emery v. Kimball Hill, Inc. (1983), 112 Ill. App.3d 109, 112, 445 N.E.2d 59; Altman v. Amoco Oil Co. (1980), 85 Ill. App.3d 104, 107, 406 N.E.2d 142.) To establish such a defense defendant need only demonstrate the truth of the "gist" or "sting" of the defamatory material. (Kilbane v. Sabonjian (1976), 38 Ill. App.3d 172, 175, 347 N.E.2d 757; Sivulich v. Howard Publications, Inc. (1984), 126 Ill. App.3d 129, 131, 466 N.E.2d 1218.) Thus, only "substantial truth" is required for this defense (Farnsworth v. Tribune Co. (1969), 43 Ill.2d 286, 293-94, 253 N.E.2d 408), which may be raised by a motion to dismiss (Kilbane v. Sabonjian (1976), 38 Ill. App.3d 172, 347 N.E.2d 757). The dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a cause of action, including one for defamation, rests with the discretion of the trial court. Antonelli v. Field Enterprises, Inc. (1983), 115 Ill. App.3d 432, 436, 450 N.E.2d 976; Renard v. Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (1984), 126 Ill. App.3d 563, 567, 467 N.E.2d 1090.

Here, the circuit court correctly found that the defense of truth applied to the alleged defamatory material complained of in count I, which alleged that "[t]he headline `Zion Hospital Refused Accreditation by Panel' and the statement that plaintiff `has been refused accreditation by the JOINT COMMISSION ON ACCREDITATION OF HOSPITALS;' were, and are, wholly false and have injured plaintiff in its business reputation." Plaintiff argues that this allegation should be taken as true for purposes of the motion to dismiss.

Plaintiff, however, also alleged in count I that JCAH had "decided not to accredit" plaintiff and "to revoke the accreditation," characterizing the JCAH's action as a "preliminary adverse decision." Moreover, a copy of JCAH's letter to plaintiff, informing it of JCAH's decision "not to accredit" it, was attached as an exhibit to the complaint. Such exhibits are considered integral parts of the complaint, and any facts stated therein are considered the same as those alleged in the complaint itself. (Davis v. Keystone Printing Service, Inc. (1982), 111 Ill. App.3d 427, 444 N.E.2d 253. See also Ill. Rev. Stat. 1983, ch. 110, par. 2-606.) Plaintiff's allegation that the challenged language was "false," a conclusion not based on any factual allegations — and, in fact, internally contradicted by the previously quoted allegations and exhibit — therefore cannot be taken as true.

Plaintiff's own characterization of JCAH's action as a decision to "revoke" plaintiff's accreditation or "not to accredit" plaintiff is not substantially different from the Tribune's statement that plaintiff was "refused accreditation." The transitive verb "refuse" is defined as "to decline to accept." (Webster's Third International Dictionary 1910 (1966).) The JCAH's action here can be fairly described as a decision to decline acceptance of plaintiff's continued accreditation. The alleged defamatory statements cited in count I thus are substantially true.

Plaintiff asserts that its accreditation was never actually lost, in that it appealed the nonaccreditation decision, during which time the prior accreditation remained in effect, and that the JCAH subsequently accredited plaintiff for a one-year period. We must reject this argument. Plaintiff conceded in its complaint that a nonaccreditation decision, fairly described by the Tribune as a "refusal" of accreditation, had, in fact, been rendered. The subject newspaper article, moreover, indicated that the decision was appealable and that plaintiff intended to appeal it. Finally, the fact that plaintiff ultimately was granted accreditation on November 4, 1980, does not affect the substantial truth of the Tribune's report as of September 19, 1980, the date of the article's publication. See Emery v. Kimball Hill, Inc. (1983), 112 Ill. App.3d 109, 445 N.E.2d 59.

Count II is essentially a reallegation of the points enumerated in count I, with the additional allegation that the subject article was part of defendant's continuing effort to discredit plaintiff, through certain "Task Force" articles published by the Tribune. The amended complaint neither sets forth nor challenges the specific contents of these "Task Force" articles, which also are not attached as exhibits. Thus, the only words expressly alleged as defamatory are those challenged in count I, realleged and incorporated in count II. The defense of truth therefore applies equally to count II as it does to count I.

Count III alleged that JCAH communicated the following false and defamatory matter to the Tribune, knowing that the Tribune would print such matter: "(1) that AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL HOSPITAL has been refused accreditation, (2) that no appeal was filed from the survey recommendations, (3) that AMERICAN INTERNATIONAL HOSPITAL has lost standing in the community and its public image is marred." Plaintiff neither identified the speaker nor attached a copy of the allegedly defamatory matter to its complaint. While the first and second of the challenged statements appear to ...


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