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Hurst v. Capital Cities Media

April 24, 2001

ROBERT HURST, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE AND CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
CAPITAL CITIES MEDIA, INC., D/B/A BELLEVILLE NEWS-DEMOCRAT, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT AND CROSS-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. No. 96-L-103 Honorable P. J. O'Neill, Judge, presiding.

Justices: Honorable Gordon E. Maag, J. Honorable Philip J. Rarick, J. Honorable Terrence J. Hopkins, J. Concur

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Maag

This case comes to us pursuant to the application for leave to appeal, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 308 (155 Ill. 2d R. 308), filed by the defendant, Capital Cities Media, Inc. (Capital Cities), doing business as the Belleville News-Democrat. The circuit court of Madison County, Illinois, identified two questions of law on which it found a substantial ground for a difference of opinion, and the court determined that an immediate appeal might materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.

The issues identified by the trial court are as follows:

"Can the identification of plaintiff as a suspect in a criminal case in the newspaper articles at issue be innocently construed as substantially true so as to bar plaintiff's false[-]light privacy action where it also states, inter alia, that the victim knew her attacker?"

"Does [section 13-217 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/13-217 (West 1994))] bar plaintiff's instant complaint on the basis that plaintiff had twice previously filed a substantially similar complaint, where one of the previous actions was nolle prossed [sic][] and the other was voluntarily dismissed on plaintiff's motion?"

The facts pertinent to these questions are set forth as follows. On February 9, 1996, Robert Hurst (plaintiff) filed suit against Capital Cities and others on a false-light invasion of privacy theory. The cause of action was based upon an article published November 30, 1995, in the Belleville News-Democrat. The article stated that a St. Louis television station had reported that plaintiff had been questioned for two hours by police in a recent rape case. The article went on to state that the Illinois State Police in charge of the case refused to confirm or deny the television report and that the commander of the state police said that it would be inappropriate to comment. The article also stated that plaintiff could not be reached for comment.

The article then recounted information that had been released to the public the preceding day by the Madison County State's Attorney regarding the status of the investigation. In a public statement, the Madison County State's Attorney said, "I think it has been established that she knew her attacker." The State's Attorney stated that the victim initially "gave police a phony description of her attacker because she feared the real attacker would seek revenge if his identity were revealed." The State's Attorney also said, "The public should know there is not a serial rapist out there." The article went on to recount the State's Attorney's opinion that a rape had occurred and his explanation that the investigation, which was more than a month old, was continuing and was made more difficult because the police had experienced some difficulty working with the victim. The alleged incident had received media attention prior to the November 30, 1995, article, as flyers reprinting a composite sketch created with the victim's assistance had been published in several local papers and broadcast locally.

At the time of this report, plaintiff was working at the St. Clair County sheriff's department as a part-time bailiff. He had been the chief of police of the City of Belleville, Illinois, from 1985 through 1993.

Plaintiff initially filed a complaint in St. Clair County court on February 9, 1996, naming Viacom Broadcasting of Missouri, a corporation, doing business as KMOV-TV Channel 4, Capital Cities, George Pawlaczyk, Lori Nolen, and Greg Edwards as defendants. The complaint against Capital Cities alleged theories of libel and invasion of privacy based on the November 30, 1995, article. On February 13, 1996, plaintiff filed a motion to nol-pros the case on the ground that it was inadvertently filed in St. Clair County, Illinois. The court granted the motion, and the case was dismissed that same day.

Plaintiff then filed a complaint in the circuit court of Madison County on February 13, 1996. Therein, he named Viacom Broadcasting, Mary Phelan, Capital Cities, George Pawlaczyk, Lori Nolen, and Greg Edwards as defendants. The counts against Capital Cities again contained allegations of libel and invasion of privacy arising from the November 30, 1995, article. On April 3, 1996, plaintiff filed a motion to voluntarily dismiss Capital Cities and the other "newspaper defendants" from the lawsuit pursuant to section 2-1009 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-1009 (West 1994)). The court granted the motion that same day. Nolen and the television defendants remained in the case.

On November 27, 1996, plaintiff filed a motion to amend count I of the complaint to correct typographical errors and to add Capital Cities and other newspaper personnel as defendants. The court granted the motion, and plaintiff filed his fourth amended complaint. In the fourth amended complaint, plaintiff added a count (count IX) against Capital Cities and the other newspaper defendants. This count alleged an invasion of privacy arising from the November 30, 1995, article. Subsequently, plaintiff served Capital Cities with a summons and complaint.

On January 16, 1997, Capital Cities moved to dismiss the action filed against it, on the grounds that plaintiff had twice voluntarily dismissed claims against it and was prohibited from filing another action by the single-refiling rule. The circuit court heard hours of argument and considered a number of briefs on this issue and on the issue of whether the article is actionable under a false-light claim. Subsequently, the court certified those two questions for our consideration.

The first question we are asked to address is whether the identification of plaintiff as a suspect in a criminal case in the newspaper article at issue can be innocently construed as substantially true so as to bar plaintiff's false-light invasion of privacy action where the article also states, inter alia, that the victim knew her attacker. Stated simply, we are asked to decide ...


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