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$1.2 Billion in Damages: Company Goes After Diane Sawyer In 'One Of the Most High-Stakes Defamation Court Battles In History


"We have to do this ... We have no other choice."

The country let out a collective “Gross!” last year after details and images of “lean finely textured beef” (i.e. “pink slime”) started to make their way into nightly news reports.

Don’t tell us you don’t remember this:

Associated Press

And although America's negative reaction to the images seems reasonable, the extremely unfortunate downside to this story has been the loss of jobs and revenues at Beef Products Inc., the company that produces the meat product.

“[T]he South Dakota company's revenues have plummeted from more than $650 million to about $130 million a year, and three of its plants are shuttered,” according to a recent Reuters report.

And all of this ​after ​the product was in widespread use. It's not like it was ​new thing; we just hadn't seen it in production before.

So perhaps it's not that surprising that BPI officials blame the loss of jobs and revenues on the ABC News program that popularized the term “pink slime,” meaning they are looking directly at this woman:

Screen grab

“BPI hired a high-powered Chicago trial lawyer and in September slapped the network, star anchor Diane Sawyer and other defendants with a 27-count lawsuit that seeks at least $1.2 billion in damages - about one-fifth of the fiscal 2012 net income of American Broadcasting Co parent Walt Disney Co.,” Reuters notes

“Now, the case, which many observers initially wrote off as a public relations ploy by a desperate company, is shaping up as one of the most high-stakes defamation court battles in U.S. history,” the report adds.

In short, BPI is dead serious about its lawsuit and they’re coming after ABC and Diane Sawyer.

“The court fight could put modern television journalism on trial and highlight the power of language in the Internet Age,” Reuters notes.

Indeed, as mentioned in the above, it was after her use of “pink slime” that the term caught on and went viral.

Reuters continues:

Libel cases are extremely difficult to win in the U.S. because of strong press protections, and ABC has compelling legal arguments. However interviews with BPI's founders, agriculture industry officials and legal experts, as well as a review of federal documents and court records, suggest that ABC's reports had certain flaws that could resonate with a jury: ABC's lead reporter on the story mischaracterized BPI's product on Twitter; the network failed to clearly describe on-air how the company's beef wound up in the nation's food supply; and ABC did not reveal in an interview with a former BPI employee that he had lost a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company.

“ABC denies the allegations in the lawsuit and is seeking to have it thrown out. The network and its lawyers at Washington D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly declined to comment on the case,” the report continues.

“In court papers, the network argues that the lawsuit is a bid by BPI to chill media coverage of the food industry,” it adds.

Of course, a drawn out legal case could put an unfavorably spotlight on BPI’s closely-guarded manufacturing processes. Still, BPI founders Eldon and Regina Roth say they’re willing to spend whatever it takes to go after ABC.

"We have to do this," Eldon Roth told Reuters. "We have no other choice."

The report continues:

For BPI to prove the defamation piece of its case, it would need to show that the network negligently reported a false statement of fact that injured its reputation. If BPI is deemed by the court to be a public rather than a private figure in the legal sense, it would have a higher bar to cross: The company would need to prove ABC knew the facts it was reporting were false or it recklessly disregarded the truth.

While the case is in the early stages, the network appears to have a legal leg-up on both counts: ABC never said BPI's product is dangerous, and courts have repeatedly offered broad protections for journalists in the course of their work.

But by calling a food product "slime" 137 times over the span of nearly four weeks on its newscasts, its website and on Twitter, according to BPI's tally, did ABC make the public think LFTB was unsafe? If, as BPI alleges, ABC shrugged off information that refuted parts of its reporting, did it act recklessly and could it therefore be held liable for defamation?

"It's hard to imagine ‘slime' being a positive term, but at the same time, was it used with malice?" Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Freedom Forum, told Reuters. "This is going to be a very tough thing for BPI to prove."

Click here to read the full Reuters report.



Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Featured image Getty Images. An earlier version of this article featured a photo incorrectly identified as "lean finely textured beef." We have since removed the erroneous photo and replaced it with the one you see in the above.

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