Supreme Court Stays Out of Two Libel Cases With AM-Scotus Rdp Bjt
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court let stand a $375,000 libel award against a Charleston, W.Va., newspaper Monday but refused to reinstate a $1 million libel award against a Battle Creek, Mich., newspaper.
In the West Virginia case, the court turned away arguments that the libel award violated the Charleston Gazette’s free-press rights. Lawyers for the newspaper said the editorial which provoked the suit was never proved to be substantially false.
In the Michigan case, only two justices voted to review a ruling that threw out a libel judgment because the contested article in the Enquirer and News of Battle Creek about a man’s arrest ″was not materially false.″
Justices Byron R. White and Clarence Thomas voted to hear arguments in the Michigan case, but the votes of four of the court’s nine members are needed to grant a review.
Ray Hinerman, a former vice president of the West Virginia State Bar’s board of governors and a municipal judge in Weirton, sued the Gazette in 1984 over a May 20, 1983, editorial.
The editorial suggested that the state’s bar ethics committee look at Hinerman’s work for a disabled coal miner who successfully sought worker’s compensation benefits.
The editorial discussed the case of disabled miner Sam Levin, who emigrated to the United States from Russia in 1975, moved to Wheeling in 1977 and suffered a heart attack while working in the mines.
Levin hired Hinerman and agreed to pay him a contingency fee that came to $12,088, based on the compensation Levin ultimately won.
After a one-day hearing, Levin won his appeal and was awarded back benefits of $19,782.38 and future benefits of $1,162.38 per month for the rest of his life.
Hinerman sued Levin after the disabled miner refused to pay the contingency fee of $12,088. A state judge ordered Levin to pay Hinerman that amount, and allowed Hinerman to seize 100 percent of Levin’s benefits until the $12,088 was paid.
The Gazette’s editorial said Hinerman was allowed ″to seize 100 percent″ of Levin’s benefits but did not mention that the attachment of Levin’s benefits would last only until Hinerman’s bill was paid.
The West Virginia Supreme Court upheld the contingency fee award last July by a 3-2 vote.
The Michigan case stemmed from the Dec. 21, 1979, arrest of David Rouch, a resident of Emmett Township. He was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year- old girl who was baby sitting his ex-wife’s children.
No formal charges ever were filed against him, however, and another man was prosecuted for the crime.
Rouch’s lawsuit against the Enquirer and News said he was libeled because the newspaper reported that he had been ″charged with″ - not accused of - the crime.
The suit said the article also libeled Rouch by saying the county prosecutor’s office had authorized the ″charge″ against him when, in fact, it had only authorized his temporary incarceration based on allegations made against him.
After various rounds of litigation, a trial was held in 1988. A jury awarded Rouch $1 million.
A state appeals court upheld the award, but the Michigan Supreme Court threw it out by a 6-1 vote last July. The award, with interest, had grown to about $4 million by the time the state Supreme Court ruled.
The law ″has never required defendants to prove that a publication is literally and absolutely accurate in every minute detail,″ the state court said. ″We conclude that the evidence was not sufficient to establish material falsity.″