NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · ILLINOIS · Libel · April 5, 2007
Judge’s record libel judgment reduced
April 5, 2007 · An Illinois court substantially reduced a $7 million libel judgment awarded to Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Thomas to $4 million last week.
In a lawsuit against former Kane County Chronicle columnist Bill Page and Chronicle owner Shaw Newspapers, Thomas alleged that Page defamed him when Page wrote that Thomas’ vote on the bench was improperly influenced by political favors.
The jury initially awarded Thomas, a former Chicago Bears football player, $5 million for harm to his reputation, $1 million for mental suffering and $1 million for future monetary losses. The original lawsuit asked for $17 million.
Page’s columns said Thomas reduced disciplinary sanctions against Kane County State’s Attorney Meg Gorecki. Page wrote that Thomas initially considered disbarring Gorecki but instead imposed a four-month suspension after local political leaders agreed to back another judicial candidate favored by Thomas. Such favoritism could consistute official misconduct, which is a felony.
Thomas said that Gorecki’s punishment was not determined for any political reasons.
The case prompted a state appeals court to rule last year that justices are protected from revealing discussions between themselves because of a “judicial privilege.”
At the trial court, Page argued that he based the articles on information from confidential sources. Because he would not break his promise of confidentiality, he was prevented from relying on any information from those sources as a defense.
Subsequently, jurors concluded that Page wrote the articles with “actual malice,” or knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — the standard public figures such as Thomas must meet to successfully sue for libel.
Attorneys for Page and the Chronicle subsequently asked the court to order a new trial or issue a judgment notwithstanding the jury’s verdict, which is occasionally done when a jury’s verdict is deemed completely unreasonable by the court. Alternatively, attorneys requested the court to reduce the amount of damages, calling the $7 million award “grotesque” and “outrageous.”
Although the court denied the motions for a new trial and judgment notwithstanding the verdict, they granted the motion for reduction of damages. The court said that since the only evidence regarding the loss of Thomas’s reputation came from Thomas himself, “it hardly supports an award of $5 million” for loss of reputation.
The court opined that the award fell “outside the range of fair and reasonable compensation, was the result of passion and prejudice, and shocks this judicial conscience.”
According to the opinion, Thomas may either accept the new $4 million award or request a new trial on the issue of damages.
(Thomas v. Page, Media Counsel: Stephen J. Rosenfeld, Mandell Menkes LLC, Chicago) — ES