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Reporters Committee applauds decision in Food Lion case

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Today's decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Circuit) to throw out most of the claims brought…

Today’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Circuit) to throw out most of the claims brought by the Food Lion grocery chain against ABC will help stop the dangerous trend in “newsgathering” lawsuits that try to execute an “end run” around First Amendment protections, according to The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“The court today upheld the principle that a party cannot circumvent First Amendment protections afforded the news media by attacking the methods through which news is gathered,” according to Gregg P. Leslie, Acting Executive Director of the Reporters Committee.

“Even though it found that the ABC employees had trespassed and breached a duty of loyalty to Food Lion, the court said the food chain cannot use that fact to recover millions of dollars from ABC after the Food Lion stock price fell, apparently in response to the ABC story on unsanitary practices,” Leslie said.

Food Lion never sued ABC for libel, and admitted in court that it did not think it could prove that ABC acted with actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.

“This high standard of proof exists for a reason; to ensure that the media can freely report on matters of public importance without undue fear that the occasional error will lead to a huge libel verdict,” according to Leslie. “Companies like Food Lion want to recover damages when they don’t like what’s being reported. They try to get around the burden of proof required in libel claims by suing for other ‘newsgathering’ tort claims, such as trespass, fraud and breach of loyalty. This decision sends such companies a clear message — it won’t work.”

In 1992, two producers for ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” modified their resumes to obtain jobs in Food Lion stores to document allegedly unhealthy food handling practices. A jury later found that the two had committed fraud, trespass, and breach of loyalty to Food Lion, and awarded the grocery chain more than $5 million in damages in January 1997. That amount was later reduced to just over $316,000 by the judge. In today’s action, the appellate court threw out the fraud claim — which was the basis for all but $2 of the damages awarded — after finding that Food Lion had not been harmed by its reliance on the producers’ actions. The court reduced the total award to Food Lion to $2.