A South Dakota state judge has rejected ABC News’ effort to dismiss a potentially multibillion-dollar libel and defamation lawsuit brought by the meat company at the center of the network’s “pink slime” reporting in 2012.
Today’s ruling, which did remove former ABC World News Tonight anchor Diane Sawyer from the list of plaintiffs, means a 2012 lawsuit seeking $1.9 billion can move forward to a jury trial in state court. The Wall Street Journal reported today that South Dakota’s strict food-libel laws could triple damages awarded in such cases. (ABC had tried unsuccessfully to have the suit moved to federal court.)
Beef Products, Inc, based in Union County, SD, sued ABC News, Sawyer, reporters Jim Avila and David Kerley, and former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein originally seeking $1.2 billion in damages after a series of 2012 broadcast reports on the company. It was Zirnstein who used the term “pink slime” to describe BP’s lean finely textured beef (LFTB) product in a 2002 email after touring a plant. Soon after those reports aired, fast food chains began severing ties with the company, which ultimately had to shutter three plants and undergo layoffs at corporate headquarters.
“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 Cheryle Gering said today, according to the WSJ report, and that they “engaged in purposeful avoidance of the truth.”
Responded ABC News in a statement today: “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.”