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Jury Finds Against Newspaper, Awards $1 Million

February 19, 1988

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) _ A jury today ruled that the Battle Creek Enquirer libeled a man who was arrested during an investigation of rape but never was charged with the crime, and awarded him $1 million.

The six-member jury deliberated four hours over two days before finding that the paper had libeled cereal company mechanic David Rouch when it reported on his 1979 arrest during the investigation of a rape case.

Jurors found that the Enquirer published false information and failed to exercise reasonable care.

The case set a new standard for libel in Michigan when the state Supreme Court ruled Rouch did not have to prove malice, that the report was published with knowledge of its falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. That is one of the elements generally required for a private citizen to prove libel.

Rouch, 52, had sought $500,000 each for punitive and actual damages. Calhoun County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Miller Thursday threw out his claim for punitive damages after the newspaper argued Rouch hadn’t proven malice, a requirement of a punitive damage award.

Robert Bernius, an attorney for the Gannett Co. Inc.-owned newspaper, said he would appeal to the Michigan Court of Appeals. He and publisher Robert Miller Jr. declined further comment.

During closing arguments, Rouch attorney John Jereck blasted the paper for ″bulldozing″ over his client’s rights. ″It was a flagrant disregard under the camouflage of the claim of the public’s right to know, freedom of the press,″ Jereck said.

Bernius cited testimony from experts who said the Enquirer followed standard practice by making routine checks and accurately reporting the assault and the arrest of Rouch as described by police. Bernius also urged the jury to focus on what the newspaper knew when the story was printed and not on subsequent developments.

Rouch, 52, was arrested on suspicion of raping a 17-year-old babysitter. A magistrate approved by telephone an interim personal recognizance bond and he was released. The newspaper reported his arrest and release.

Before he was arraigned, the investigation changed and Rouch never was formally charged. Because there was no arraignment, Miller ruled that the state’s ″official proceedings″ act didn’t protect the newspaper.

The Enquirer didn’t learn through its daily police calls that there was another arrest in the case and neither Rouch nor his attorney complained until nearly a year had elapsed and the lawsuit was prepared.

Rouch sued the city for false arrest and received a $4,000 settlement.

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