A tentative date of June 2017 has been set for the start of the jury trial in a South Dakota state court over the “pink slime” dispute known as BPI v. ABC. BPI sued ABC in 2012 after the network and its news division repeatedly called the Dakota Dunes-based company’s lean, finely textured beef “pink slime.” The reports created a media sensation that drove customers away from the product, especially as it was found in use by hamburger chains and the National School Lunch Program. A jury trial will bring ABC executives and anchor Diane Sawyer to Elk Point, SD, where the Union County Courthouse is likely to get a makeover to accommodate them as they defend their reporting on BPI’s home turf. Elk Point, with a population of 1,963, is working in anticipation of the trial that would also be a tight fit. BPI’s headquarters is only a few miles down Interstate 29, near Sioux City, IA. BPI claims ABC’s reports caused the loss more than $400 million in sales and forced the closure of three of its four plants, resulting in the loss of 700 jobs. A jury verdict favoring BPI could result in ABC being forced to pay $1.2 billion because, under the South Dakota agricultural disparagement law, triple damages may be awarded. The jury trial is scheduled for Union County Circuit Court in Elk Point before trial Judge Cheryle Gering. The litigation has bounced around from state to federal courts, including a pass through the South Dakota Supreme Court, since it was filed four years ago. Its official case title is Freezing Machines Inc., Beef Products Inc. and BPI Technology Inc. vs. Kit Foshee, American Broadcasting Companies Inc., ABC News Inc., Diane Sawyer, Jim Avila, David Kerley, Gerald Zirnstein and Carl Custer. Union County is currently on the threshold of building a third courtroom to accommodate the high-profile case. A community room in the basement of the courthouse is to be turned into a third courtroom at a cost of about $100,000. Regional judicial officials and representatives of ABC have reportedly met with Union County’s building and grounds department about how the space might be reworked for the trial. The larger of two existing courtrooms would be used for regular court business during the trial. The smaller courtroom would be remodeled as a jurors’ room, with its restrooms closed to the public during the trial. The new courtroom would be built in the basement, insulating a room to eliminate sound from an air-handling unit. A back-door exit for the judge would be added, along with carpeting, ceiling fans, electrical wiring, judge’s bench and a 16-person jury box with iPad plug-ins. Furniture, including suitable chairs for jurors, would also need to be purchased. During the BPI v. ABC trial , the courthouse parking lot will be closed for jurors, judges and the media, so additional parking is needed. In addition to the physical changes, the June 2017 trail will require three bailiffs. Union County anticipates starting construction in November. A February 2017 pre-trial conference is also currently scheduled. The third courtroom will likely push a driver’s license station out of the courthouse, possibility to Elk Point City Hall. County election services and storage areas would also have to be moved. Should Union County’s construction plans fall through for any reason, the jury trial could be moved out of Elk Point. Possible relocation sites would include the University of South Dakota Law School in nearby Vermillion, or to Sioux Falls, located about an hour away. The South Dakota Supreme Court last year refused to accept ABC’s appeal of a trial court order to proceed to the discovery phase. Judge Gering earlier denied motions to dismiss the case. The defendants in the case include ABC anchor Diane Sawyer, two network reporters who covered the story, two former U.S. Department of Agriculture employees, and a former BPI employee who were interviewed for the network’s coverage of the “pink slime” story. BPI chief executive Eldon Roth perfected a way to extract finely textured beef that was typically used in hamburger production.
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