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09/29/89 James Winters, v. Andrew M. Greeley

September 29, 1989





545 N.E.2d 422, 189 Ill. App. 3d 590, 136 Ill. Dec. 898 1989.IL.1580

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. Myron Gomberg, Judge, presiding.


JUSTICE McMORROW delivered the opinion of the court. JIGANTI, P.J., and JOHNSON, J., concur.


This is an interlocutory appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 308 (107 Ill. 2d R. 308) from an order of the circuit court of Cook County striking plaintiff's claim for punitive damages in a libel action and certifying the following question of law for our review:

"[Whether] [w]here the Court has found as a matter of law that the plaintiff is a limited purpose public figure, the plaintiff is not entitled to punitive damages."

On July 21, 1982, plaintiff, the managing editor of a university magazine, instituted this libel action against defendant, an author and syndicated columnist. In his two-count amended complaint, plaintiff alleged that defendant made statements in a press release and during the taping of a television interview which falsely accused him of lying, of having committed various criminal offenses and of lacking the integrity required of a writer, reporter and editor actively in pursuit of a career in journalism. Plaintiff further alleged that defendant was aware that the statements were false when made, and that he intended them to be published without regard to their truth or falsity. According to plaintiff, defendant's statements caused him damage to his reputation and standing in the community and to his reputation and integrity as a managing editor and aspiring journalist, personal humiliation, mental anguish, and hindered him in the pursuit of his chosen profession. Count I of the complaint alleged libel per se ; count II alleged negligence in the making of the statements. Each count sought $1 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages.

The trial court found plaintiff to be a public figure for a limited purpose and denied defendant's motion for summary judgment. The court granted defendant's motion to strike plaintiff's claim for punitive damages on the basis of the decision in Costello v. Capital City Communications, Inc. (1987), 153 Ill. App. 3d 956, 505 N.E.2d 701, wherein the Fifth District Appellate Court held that where actual malice is the gist of an action for libel, an award of both compensatory and punitive damages constitutes an impermissible double recovery. (153 Ill. App. 3d at 974.) On November 6, 1987, the trial court entered an order striking plaintiff's punitive damage claim and certified the question of law quoted above.


The certified question presents the issue of whether a public figure plaintiff is precluded, as a matter of law, from recovery of punitive damages in a libel action because the threshold of liability, i.e., "actual malice," which must be proved to support a punitive damage award is the same as the threshold of liability which is necessary for recovery of compensatory damages.

The current state of the law of defamation evolved from the landmark case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), 376 U.S. 254, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686, 84 S. Ct. 710. In that case, the United States Supreme Court held that protection of first and fourteenth amendment rights (U.S. Const., amends. I, XIV) precludes a public official from recovering damages for publication of a defamatory statement, except where it is proved by clear and convincing evidence that the defamatory statement was made with "actual malice." The showing of "actual malice" required to permit recovery was defined by the New York Times court as "knowledge [of the statement's falsity] or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." (New York Times, 376 U.S. at 279-80, 11 L. Ed. 2d at 706, 84 S. Ct. at 726.) The New York Times rule was extended to libel actions brought by persons who may not have been public officials but who were, in some sense, "public figures." (Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts (1967), 388 U.S. 130, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1094, 87 S. Ct. 1975.) The Curtis Court further held that where a public figure proves that the defamatory matter was published with knowledge of or reckless disregard for its falsity, punitive damages are not precluded by the first and fourteenth amendments. See also Fopay v. Noveroske (1975), 31 Ill. App. 3d 182, 334 N.E.2d 79.

In the case at bar, the trial court ruled that plaintiff is a limited purpose public figure. Thus, the stringent requirements of New York Times are applicable, and, in order to recover any damages, plaintiff must establish that the defendant acted with "actual malice" by proving that the allegedly defamatory statements were made with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.

In the law of defamation, "actual malice" has a unique legal meaning which differs significantly from the common law meaning of malice applied in other tort actions. The United States Supreme Court in Cantrell v. Forest City Publishing Co. (1974), 419 U.S. 245, 42 L. Ed. 2d ...

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