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Judge chucks suit maligning beef industry

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         FIFTH CIRCUIT         Libel         Sep 20, 2002    

Judge chucks suit maligning beef industry

  • More than six years since an Oprah Winfrey Show guest criticized the cattlemen’s consumable, a federal judge dismissed a second lawsuit against the show by livestock owners.

Federal District Court Judge Mary L. Robinson Aug. 27 in Amarillo dismissed a lawsuit filed by Cactus Feeding Club Inc. and other cattle companies against Oprah Winfrey, her production company, distributor and the guest accused of violating Texas’s “veggie libel” law, during a 1996 show.

The case, filed in 1998, was the second such one against The Oprah Winfrey Show. An earlier suit, which Winfrey won, went to trial in 1998. The first lawsuit was filed in federal court by the feed yards, but the second suit was filed by livestock owners in state court, although some plaintiffs were the same in both cases. The case was later moved to federal court.

“One of our positions was that they were essentially the same party,” said Charles Babcock, who represented the defendants in this case. “This was one of the bases for our motion to dismiss the case. We’ve already done this once and we won. You don’t get a second bite of the apple.”

In both cases, plaintiffs accused the talk show of negatively portraying the beef industry and said her claim to never eat another hamburger damaged sales. Lyman claimed during the show that U.S. beef could be at risk for mad cow disease.

After the broadcast, prices on the Texas and national cattle markets dropped. However, an economic expert testified during the initial trial that factors such as drought, high corn prices and weak exports had far more impact on the slump than what was said the talk show.

The cattlemen alleged violations of the Texas Disparagement of Perishable Food Products Act and damages from business disparagement, defamation and negligence.

In February 1998, the court dismissed all claims except the business disparagement claim. The court later found in favor of Winfrey on the business disparagement claim. In February 2000 the U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans (5th Cir.) unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision.

“The handwriting was on the wall once the jury found for Oprah and other defendants,” Babcock said. “The second case wasn’t going anywhere. But it almost seems anticlimactic after all the effort we went through.”

(Cactus Feeding Club v. Winfrey; Media counsel: Charles L. Babcock, Jackson Walker, LLP, Dallas, Texas) JL

© 2002 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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