A judge in South Dakota has ruled that a lawsuit against ABC News by a meat processing company, which claimed the network had smeared it with “fake news” in 2012, will be allowed to proceed to a jury trial.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Judge Cheryle Gering ruled partially in favor of Beef Products Inc.’s claim that an ABC report by Jim Avila that labeled their product “pink slime” ultimately caused $1.9 billion in damages after the company was forced to shutter three plants and lay off hundreds of workers because of negative publicity the report inspired.
“Looking at the evidence in a light most favorable to the plaintiffs, a jury could determine that there is clear and convincing evidence that ABC Broadcasting and Mr. Avila were reckless,” Judge Gering said, adding that “they engaged in purposeful avoidance of the truth.”
The term “pink slime” refers to a product known as “lean, finely textured beef,” a product that has been deemed safe for consumption and which at the time of the report was found in roughly 70 percent of the ground beef available on grocery store shelves.
Despite the ABC report making it clear that the product was indeed safe, the judge decided that the “negative spin” of the story and Avila’s “rude, agitated and hostile” line of questioning to meat industry representatives could potentially be deemed libelous. A South Dakota law specifically related to food-related libel calls for legal damages to be tripled, meaning ABC could ultimately be on the hook for almost $6 billion.
While the judge allowed the lawsuit against ABC and Avila to proceed, she did throw out part of the lawsuit that alleged defamation on the part of former “World News Tonight” anchor Diane Sawyer, according to Deadline.
In response to the ruling, an ABC statement read: “We are pleased that the court dismissed all claims against Diane Sawyer. The court has not ruled on the merits of the case against the other defendants, and we welcome the opportunity to defend the ABC News reports at trial and are confident that we will ultimately prevail.”
But at a hearing in January, the lawyer for Beef Products was just as confident.
“This was fake news,” Beef Products attorney J. Erik Connolly told the judge during arguments in January, according to The Wall Street Journal. “It’s perfectly safe. It’s perfectly nutritious. It was properly approved by the USDA. There was no news here. There was nothing to rush out and talk about. There was no news.”
ABC had initially attempted to move the lawsuit from state to federal court, thinking the network would receive a more favorable verdict or dismissal of the case, but a federal judge kicked it back down to state court in 2013.
Running with slanted smear pieces and hit jobs for the sake of sensationalism or to advance an ideological agenda could prove costly to news outlets and just not worth it. We’ll see whether the jury decides that that’s what ABC did.
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