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Strange v. Collins

July 18, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joe Billy McDADE United States District Judge


Before the Court is Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment [Doc. #25]. For the reasons that follow, Defendant's motion will be denied.

I. Background

In September 2002, Defendant Phil Collins (Collins) entered into a contract with Plaintiff Strange Motion Rod and Custom Construction, Inc. and its proprietors, Tim and Carrie Strange (hereinafter Strange Motion), to have Strange Motion perform work on Collins' 1952 Buick. (Def.'s Mem. Supp. Summ. J., Doc. #26 at 1 (hereinafter Def's Mem.).) Strange Motion was in possession of the car from that time until the end of June 2003, at which point Collins reclaimed it from the shop. Id. During the time period in which the Buick was being worked on, Collins made payments to Strange Motion in several installments, totaling over $53,000. Id.

Based upon the initial work that was to be performed on the car, Strange Motion provided an estimate of $16,192.50. (Pl.'s Resp., Doc. #30 Ex. 1 at 53, line 10-19 (Timothy Strange Dep.).) Later, further modifications to the car were agreed upon, and an estimate of an additional $33,465 was given by Strange Motion. (Id. Ex. 1 at 54, line 1-2.) Collins claims that the estimate was for a completely restored custom vehicle. (Def.'s Mot., Doc. #25 at 3.) Strange Motion claims that at each point in the contract proceedings, Collins was reminded that the above figures were only a rough estimate, and that all work was at the rate of forty dollars per hour plus the cost of parts and materials. (Pl.'s Resp., Doc. #30 Ex. 1 at 53, line 4-5.)

When Collins regained possession of his car, it was in a largely incomplete state. According to Collins' expert Don Hoelscher, "[n]ot one area or item or part of this vehicle can be considered complete." (Def.'s Mot., Doc. #25 Ex. 5 at 6.) Strange Motion has also retained possession of many parts from the customized Buick. (Def.'s Mem., Doc. #26 at 1.) Strange Motion claims that Collins owes them an additional sum for services rendered, and is holding those parts until such payment is made. (Pl.'s Resp., Doc. #30 Ex. 2 at 60 (Carrie Strange Dep.).) An appraisal of the car upon its return from Strange Motion, performed by Collins' expert, places its current value at $26,000. (Def.'s Mot., Doc. #25 Ex. 5 at 2.) Strange Motion has not retained an expert to refute claims made by Collins' expert. (Pl.'s Resp., Doc. #30 Ex. 2 at 96.)

Collins, dissatisfied with the work performed by Strange Motion, has filed suit in Missouri for breach of contract and fraudulent misrepresentation. (Def.'s Mot., Doc. #25 Ex. 6.) He has also lodged a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General, the United States Postal Inspection Service, and the Better Business Bureau of the State of Illinois. (Id. Ex. 7.) In addition, Collins circulated a flyer at car shows, warning others of the service he received from Strange Motion. This flyer was also mailed to auto parts stores, speed shops, and rod and custom shops. (Pl.'s Resp., Doc. #30 Ex. 5 at 2.) Within the flyer (Pl.'s Resp., Doc. #30 Ex. 1), Collins makes claims that "Strange Motion, Inc. did little or almost no work for the money [Collins] paid them", and "[m]uch of the work performed by Strange Motion, Inc. on our Buick was less than professional." (Id. Ex. 3.) Other parties have made public complaints concerning Strange Motion's business practices prior to distribution of Collins' flyers. (Id. Ex. 2 at 68.) Strange Motion claims to have suffered generalized financial distress since distribution of the flyers. (Id. Ex. 1 at 2.)

Based upon this flyer, Strange Motion has filed this suit against Collins, claiming defamation, false light invasion of privacy, commercial disparagement, and interference with prospective economic advantage. Defendant Collins has filed the present motion for summary judgment on all four counts.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is to be granted where "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The moving party has the burden of showing the court, through portions of the record, that no genuine issue as to any material fact exists and that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may meet this burden by showing "that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325. Any doubt as to the existence of a genuine issue for trial is resolved against the moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986); Cain v. Lane, 857 F.2d 1139, 1142 (7th Cir. 1988).

If the moving party meets its burden, the non-moving party then has the burden of presenting specific facts to show that there is a genuine issue of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986). Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(e) requires the non-moving party to go beyond the pleadings and produce evidence of a genuine issue for trial. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324. Nevertheless, this Court must "view the record and all inferences drawn from it in the light most favorable to the [non-moving party]." Holland v. Jefferson Nat. Life Ins. Co., 883 F.2d 1307, 1312 (7th Cir. 1989). Summary judgment will be denied where a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the non-moving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Hedberg v. Indiana Bell Tel. Co., 47 F.3d 928, 931 (7th Cir. 1995).

III. Analysis

A. Defamation Per Se

In order to make a successful claim of defamation without pleading specific damages, the conduct in question must fall under one of the categories of defamation per se. Bryson v. News America Publications, Inc., 672 N.E.2d 1207, 1214 (Ill. 1996). "Statements that fall within these actionable per se categories are thought to be so obviously and materially harmful to the plaintiff that injury to her reputation may be presumed." Id. Four categories of statements are considered actionable as defamation per se. "They are: (1) [W]ords that impute the commission of a criminal offense; (2) words that impute infection with a loathsome communicable disease; (3) words that impute an inability to perform or want ...

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