Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County No. 98 L 3311 Honorable Donald Devlin, Judge Presiding.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Cahill
Plaintiff Marvie Achanzar appeals a judgment for defendants and the denial of his motion for a new trial. The main issue we address is a contention of the plaintiff that whether a qualified privilege exists as a defense in a workplace defamation action is a question of fact for the jury. The trial court believed that the existence of circumstances creating a qualified privilege in the workplace is a question of law and that the question of whether the privilege has been abused is a question of fact for the jury. We agree and affirm.
Plaintiff worked as a medical technologist for defendant Ravenswood Hospital and Loyola University Medical Center. He was fired from his position at Ravenswood Hospital in January 1998, after allegedly threatening to kill hospital employees. Plaintiff then sued defendants Leticia Garcia, his supervisor, Elvira Berganos, a co-worker, and Ravenswood Hospital for defamation. The following evidence was taken at trial.
Plaintiff worked full time at both Ravenswood Hospital and Loyola Medical Center, a total of 16 hours a day. Plaintiff testified that he is a peaceable man, actively involved in his church. Plaintiff denied that he threatened to kill anyone. He also denied spelling the word "kill" in front of defendants Berganos and Garcia. Plaintiff received a letter from Ravenswood Hospital on January 28, 1998, notifying him that he had been suspended for making threats. Plaintiff said he was stunned when he received the letter because he had not made threats.
Plaintiff spoke with the human resources department at the hospital and learned that defendants Berganos and Garcia said that plaintiff threatened to kill someone at the hospital. Plaintiff denied making threats. Plaintiff could not remember if he had said his remarks were misunderstood.
On cross-examination, plaintiff said he was not sure if defendants Garcia and Berganos were friends. Plaintiff admitted that Garcia helped him in getting his job at Ravenswood. He said that, in January 1998, Garcia and Berganos "turned on" him, but that he did not know why. Plaintiff also described an incident with Nemira Grigaliunas, a blood bank supervisor, in September 1997. Grigaliunas came to the lab and asked plaintiff to help her. Plaintiff pushed a chair and told Grigaliunas not to treat him like an "alley dog." Plaintiff said he became upset, not angry, and that he used the same tone of voice as he was using in court. He denied telling Grigaliunas that he was going to kill her.
Plaintiff described another incident in October 1997, involving Nancy Vruno, a microbiology technician. Plaintiff was sorting through lab coats, looking for his, while Vruno watched. He did not remember what was said. Plaintiff denied yelling at her. He asked why she did not let him use a certain hanger and then left. Plaintiff did not remember returning and yelling at Vruno. Plaintiff did not say he was going to kill Vruno.
Plaintiff described another incident in January 1998. Darien Sayfi called from the emergency room for test results on a critical patient. Plaintiff told Sayfi he was busy and would call when the results were ready. He then hung up the phone. Sayfi came to the laboratory and asked who had just hung up on him. Plaintiff approached Sayfi but did not yell at him. Plaintiff did not ask him to fight and also denied telling Sayfi he would kill him. Security was called but Sayfi left before they arrived. Plaintiff met with defendant Garcia about the Sayfi incident. Garcia prepared a report which included a statement that plaintiff had an "emotional outburst." Plaintiff asked Garcia to remove these terms from the report but he did not believe she did. Plaintiff did not remember receiving a revised report.
Nemensia Achanzar testified she was plaintiff's wife. Nemensia was at Ravenswood Hospital on January 19 and 20, 1998, with her daughter Nina, who was ill. Garcia and Berganos came to Nina's hospital room and told Nemensia that her husband had threatened someone in the hospital. Nemensia said she did not believe it. Nemensia denied saying that her husband had a gun and would shoot Garcia and Berganos. Neither Garcia nor Berganos asked how Nemensia's daughter was feeling. They left after making the accusation about her husband.
On cross-examination, Nemensia denied calling the police about her husband. Defendants were precluded from impeaching Nemensia with a prior inconsistent statement when plaintiff's objection was sustained.
Co-workers Dante Yague, Nestor Aconce, Barbara Duck and Mark Trevino each testified that plaintiff was a peaceable, gentle man. Duck witnessed the incident with Sayfi and said that security was called because of Sayfi's behavior, not plaintiff's.
Leticia Garcia testified she heard that plaintiff had made two earlier threats to hurt Ravenswood employees. She also witnessed plaintiff's altercation with Sayfi and decided to file a report. Garcia granted plaintiff's request to remove the term "emotional outburst" and filed a revised report. Plaintiff then told Garcia that if he was written up, he would kill someone. Plaintiff later repeated the threat in front of Garcia, Berganos and other witnesses while in a break room, implying that he had killed someone in the past and spelling out the word "kill." Garcia had filed written reprimands about plaintiff before for tardiness and inaccurate test results. Ravenswood had a progressive disciplinary system at that time. Written reprimands did not result in termination. Discipline was determined case by case.
Nemira Grigaliunas is a blood bank supervisor. She said that plaintiff became enraged when she tried to get his attention. Grigaliunas described plaintiff's behavior as that of a "raging animal." Grigaliunas said plaintiff later apologized, but she ...