Illinois Supreme Court Approves Significant Reduction of Punitive Damages in Defamation Case

In Slovinski v. Elliot, a default judgment was entered in favor of the plaintiff in his defamation action.  The case proceeded to a jury trial on damages.  The jury returned an award for the plaintiff of $81,600 for emotional distress, no damages for reputational injury and $2 million in punitive damages.  The trial court reduced punitive damages to $1 million.  On appeal, the court affirmed the default judgment and the emotional distress award.  Significantly, the appellate court further reduced the punitive damage award to $81,600.  The statements at issue were made to one of the defendant’s suppliers that financial statements were not available because plaintiff had not completed them, that plaintiff was not doing his job, was coming in late and leaving early, that plaintiff snuck off for workouts and “spent his time chasing pussy all day.”

On appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, the plaintiff argued that the initial reduction was inappropriate since the trial court did not provide specific reasons for reducing the award.  On April 15, 2010, the Supreme Court found that the question is whether there is a basis in the record to support the order, not whether specific grounds for reduction are articulated.  In this regard, the Court found that contrary to the plaintiff’s argument, there was no evidence supporting the theory of a premeditated scheme to defame.  Rather, at most, there was a reckless disregard for the plaintiff’s rights, which the Supreme Court found was “on the low end of the scale for punitive damages, far below those cases involving a defendant’s deliberate attempt to harm another person.”  In addition, the Supreme Court found that the statements were not repeated, but stated merely once in a meeting to a limited number of persons.  Further, the Supreme Court emphasized that the jury returned no award for reputational injury.  Thus, the Supreme Court found that even the trial court’s remittitur to $1 million constituted an abuse of discretion and there was no basis in the record to support such an award and affirmed the appellate court’s reduction of punitive damages to $81,600.

Slovinski is probably limited to its particular facts. In a case with a significant reputational injury and more widespread publication, the defendants would likely have a more difficult time justifying such a drastic reduction of the damages found to be appropriate by a jury.

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