The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Maag
Appeal from the Circuit Court of Williamson County.
Honorable William H. Wilson, Judge, presiding.
The plaintiff, Dennis C. Parker, brought an action alleging defamation and infliction of emotional distress against defendants, Bank of Marion and the president of the bank, Fred Becker. The trial court directed a verdict in favor of the Bank and Becker at the close of Parker's case in chief. Parker now appeals. The facts are as follows. Becker hired Parker as an officer of the Bank on January 10, 1994. On February 9, 1994, Becker fired Parker. There were two vice presidents of the Bank present at this termination meeting. Becker told Parker that several women had alleged that Parker had "touched" them in the work environment. Parker asked for specific facts. Parker then proceeded to volunteer information about an incident that had occurred earlier. This earlier incident involved touching a female bank employee. Neither Becker nor the vice presidents had heard about the particular incident that Parker described.
Becker then asked Parker about an incident that had allegedly transpired the night before. Parker claimed that nothing happened the night before. Parker requested more information about the allegations so that he could defend himself. This request was refused. Parker was then asked to resign. The reason given for the resignation request was that Parker could not effectively work with the staff. Parker refused. Becker then told Parker he was terminated.
Shortly after firing Parker, Becker called an assistant cashier and two loan officers into his office and told them he had fired Parker for "touching women". Later that day, Becker called in eight female employees, as a group, none of whom were officers of the bank, and told them he had fired Parker and why. Soon after firing Parker, Becker went to the bank's remote facility and met with the vice president, a loan secretary, and a customer service representative. He told these three people that Parker had been fired for touching women.
On March 8, 1994, Becker met with the board of directors of the bank. Becker told the board that Parker had been fired for conducting himself improperly with some of the ladies at the bank.
Parker claims that he sought other jobs in banking after he was fired but to no avail. He claims he felt ashamed, dirty, hurt, and confused after being fired. This caused him to seek the advice of a mental health professional. Parker claims he can no longer interact with close friends and that he is withdrawn.
Based on the above facts, Parker filed a two-count complaint. The first count alleged defamation. Count I charged that Becker, as an agent of the Bank, falsely accused him of sexually harassing female employees by touching them and that these words were false and defamatory per se. Count II alleged that the Bank, through its agent Becker, intentionally or recklessly inflicted severe emotional distress upon Parker by its extreme and outrageous conduct in publishing the accusations knowing that to do so would result in Parker suffering severe emotional distress.
At the close of plaintiff's case, the Bank and Becker moved for a directed verdict as to both counts. Both motions were granted. Parker now appeals the trial court's ruling.
The issues presented for review are:
1. Whether the trial court erred in directing a verdict on count I (defamation) against Parker on the basis of an erroneous finding that, as a matter of law, the phrase "fired for touching women" can be innocently construed. 2. Whether the trial court erred in directing a verdict on count II (infliction of emotional distress) against Parker on the basis of an erroneous finding that no verdict by the jury that the conduct of Becker and the Bank was extreme and outrageous could ever stand.
Parker contends that the trial court erred in directing a verdict on the defamation claim because the phrase "fired for touching women" cannot be innocently construed.
Becker and the Bank are accused of publishing defamatory statements about Parker. Liability for defamation exists where there is: a false and defamatory statement concerning another, an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party, fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher, and either actionability of the statement irrespective of special harm or the existence of special harm caused by the publication. Restatement (Second) of Torts §558 (1977); Krasinski v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 124 Ill. 2d 483, 490, 530 N.E.2d 468, 471 (1988). However, one who publishes a defamatory statement of fact is not subject to liability for ...