CINCINNATI (CN) – A federal judge has affirmed a jury’s award of $100,000 in damages to a police officer who claimed a Gannett newspaper article defamed him.
James Young, a sergeant of the Miami Township Police Dept., was mentioned in a Milford-Miami Advertiser article which stated that he was fired after having “sex with a woman while on the job,” a claim that was never proven and became the basis for his defamation suit against the Gannett Satellite Information Network Inc.
In 1997, Young was accused by a co-worker of forcing her to perform oral sex on him and claimed that he had ejaculated on her kitchen rug.
DNA testing eventually proved that the semen on the rug did not belong to Young, and an arbitrator reversed his termination and gave him a suspension instead.
Young was eventually awarded $100,000 in damages by a jury in December 2011, but Gannett filed the post-trial motion for judgment as a matter of law, claiming that “(1) plaintiff failed to establish the element of actual malice required to prevail in his defamation claim, and (2) plaintiff failed to establish harm to his reputation.”
The author of the newspaper article admitted that she did not read all of the documents concerning the investigation and arbitration hearing of Young and “testified that she knew that based on the documents, the DNA testing showed that the semen found on the rug … did not belong to plaintiff.”
Despite this knowledge, she still chose to write that Young “had sex with a woman while on the job,” even though U.S. District Court Judge Michael R. Barrett writes that “there is nothing in the arbitrator’s opinion stating that plaintiff ‘had sex with a woman while on the job.’ In fact, the arbitrator made several statements that it was not possible to determine what actually happened between [the woman] and plaintiff.”
As a result, Barrett concluded that “the court is satisfied that there was sufficient evidence presented at trial ‘upon which reasonable minds may reach different conclusions’ on the issue of actual malice.”
Gannett also claimed that no harm was done to Young’s reputation, saying that “each witness called by plaintiff testified that their opinion of plaintiff did not change as a result of the article. Defendant also points out that plaintiff’s reputation was already damaged as a result of the 1997 incident.”
However, Barrett rejected Gannett’s arguments, writing that “at trial, … plaintiff’s wife testified that after the Advertiser article was published, her husband was ‘very upset, kind of withdrawn, didn’t sleep overly well, just kind of consumed with what was going on about the information that was in the newspaper.’ Albert Fatute, a police sergeant with the Miami Township Police Dept., testified that plaintiff brought the Advertiser article into his office and ‘became emotional.’ Fatute described plaintiff as having ‘a mixture of anger and frustration and a lot of emotion.’ Finally, plaintiff himself stated that in reaction to the Advertiser article, he was ‘infuriated, humiliated, tormented and defenseless.'”
Based on Ohio case law stating that “damages for defamation may include impairment of reputation, personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering,” Judge Barrett denied Gannett’s motion for judgment.