Ranchers fail to make case for ‘veggie libel’

Wednesday, February 18, 1998

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) — The first test of the nation’s 13 “veggie-libel” laws has come back with an incomplete grade.

The federal judge in Oprah Winfrey’s beef defamation trial on Feb. 17 tossed out part of the case filed under Texas’ food-defamation law. But Judge Mary Lou Robinson, without explanation, rejected a defense request to throw the case out entirely.

Jurors returned the next day to hear the lawsuit as a common-law business disparagement case, which has a heavier burden of proof on the plaintiffs.

Cattlemen blame Winfrey’s April 16, 1996, talk show about dangerous foods—it included a segment on mad cow disease—for causing cattle prices to plummet. They say the program cost them $12 million.

The case was to be the first court test of any of the “veggie-libel” state laws and some experts had predicted it could become the Supreme Court test.

Robinson’s ruling eliminated that possibility. She did not declare the Texas law unconstitutional; she instead ruled the cattlemen had failed to make a case under the law during the four weeks of the trial.

States passed “veggie libel” laws after Washington state apple growers unsuccessfully sued CBS over a 1989 60 Minutes segment about the potential dangers of a fruit coating called Alar.

Without a specific food-disparagement law at the time, apple producers sued under disparagement laws. The cattlemen find themselves in the same situation.

“It appeared to me (cattlemen) were stressing the ‘veggie-libel’ claims,” said Bruce Johnson, the attorney who defended CBS. “They were putting all their eggs in the ‘veggie-libel’ basket, and the judge’s decision apparently cuts the heart out of their case.”

Cattlemen now must show Winfrey, her production company and a vegetarian activist guest on the show meant to damage the beef industry. Under the “veggie-libel” law, they only had to prove that knowingly false statements were made.

Attorneys refused to discuss the ruling, citing a gag order.

Defense attorneys have argued that livestock aren’t perishable food, and that the cattlemen’s theory would allow any person who owned a cow to have cause for legal action.

In a motion filed Feb. 17 morning, cattlemen said they believe there’s been enough evidence presented to support the disparagement case.

The cattlemen say Winfrey and activist Howard Lyman gave the impression on her show that U.S. cattle were at risk for mad cow disease, found in English livestock and suspected in 23 deaths in Britain. Mad cow disease and its human counterpart never have been detected in the United States.

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