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BPI settles with ABC over $1.9 billion defamation claim

“The case is settled,” Judge Cheryle Gering told the jury Wednesday morning, thereby making the first public announcement that BPI and ABC Television had settled the $1.9 billion defamation lawsuit in a confidential agreement.

ABC News screen shot with burger“As permitted under the law of South Dakota, neither the court, the jury nor the public will be told the details of the settlement today,” Gering continued.

“It is up to the parties to share in future public statements what they wish to disclose if anything about the settlement. What I can tell you is that this case is completely over and will be dismissed.”

Dakota Dunes, SD-based Beef Products Inc. (BPI) filed suit against Disney-owned ABC Television and reporter Jim Avila for calling its beef product “pink slime” on more than 350 occasions during a 27-day period in 2012.

The settlement began to come together late Monday, but was not concluded by the time court resumed on Tuesday morning. That’s apparently why Gering released the jury from hearing any additional testimony on Tuesday. By the time she called the court into session Wednesday, the lawyers had all the settlement details ready to go.

Outside the Union County Court House in Elk Point, SD, on Wednesday, ABC reporter Jim Avila, who had been named as a defendant, said he wished the jury could have heard his side of the story from the witness stand.

Jim Avila

Jim Avila

“I think it’s important to note that we are not retracting anything and we are not apologizing for anything. I want people to understand that I understand that it was a business decision and I do support my company’s decision,” Avila told media at the scene.

BPI owners Eldon and Regina Roth and other family members were present in the courtroom for the announcement. Their lead attorney, Dan Webb, said: “We are extraordinarily pleased with this settlement.”

The network was more specific.

“ABC has reached an amicable resolution of its dispute with the makers of ‘lean finely textured beef.’ Throughout this case, we have maintained that our reports accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people about this product,” a network spokesman said.

“Although we have concluded that continued litigation of this case is not in the company’s interests, we remain committed to the vigorous pursuit of truth and the consumer’s right to know about the products they purchase.”

A short time later, the Roth family issued their own statement:

“We are extraordinarily pleased to have reached a settlement of our lawsuit against ABC and Jim Avila. While this has not been an easy road to travel, it was necessary to begin rectifying the harm we suffered as a result of what we believed to be biased and baseless reporting in 2012.

“Through this process, we have again established what we all know to be true about Lean Finely Textured Beef: it is beef, and is safe, wholesome, and nutritious. This agreement provides us with a strong foundation on which to grow the business, while allowing us to remain focused on achieving the vision of the Roth and BPI family.”

The settlement, for an undisclosed amount, means others are going to be left to speculate about how much South Dakota’s Agricultural Food Products Disparagement Act, with its potential for triple damages, played in the agreement. When it could not get the case dismissed, ABC sought to get it transferred to federal court. The Dakota Dunes, SD-based BPI, however, was successful in keeping the case in state court for trial in their county courthouse.

South Dakota is one of thirteen U.S. states that make it easier for food producers to sue on libel or defamation grounds. South Dakota is one of two where triple damages may be awarded.

As for Elk Point, both town and county  officials moved quickly after the judge adjourned the proceedings to remove all parking and other restrictions that had been placed in and around the court house. Judge Gering said the basement court room built for the BPI v ABC trial, that ended midway through its fourth week, is a valuable addition to the First Judicial District’s venues.

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