Union County Courthouse, Elk Point, SD

ABC Broadcasting and on-air reporter Jim Avila are being ordered to face a Union County, SD jury over a $5.7 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Beef Products Inc. (BPI).

ABC News Anchor Diane Sawyer, however, was released from the litigation over the Disney-owned network’s depiction of a beef product that came to be known as “pink slime.”  The trial is scheduled to get underway as early as June 5.

In dropping Sawyer as a defendant, Judge Cheryle Gering said the network anchor had little direct knowledge of ABC’s reports in March and April of 2012 that depicted BPI’s lean finely textured beef as “pink slime”

The Dakota Dune-based BPI charged ABC and its reporters with “knowingly and intentionally” airing “false and disparaging statements” about its product.

A jury trial that could last eight weeks will be heard in the First Judicial Circuit Court in Elk Point, SD. BPI’s claim of $1.9 billion in damages could be tripled under South Dakota’s Agriculture Food Products Disparagement Act. ABC’s attorneys will defend the network and its reporters as acting within the bounds for a free press.

Lean, finely textured beef is made from beef chunks and trimmings. BPI adds tiny burst of ammonium hydroxide to kill bacteria. It is then mixed with other ground beef in hamburgers.

ABC aired reports calling the product “pink slime” and saying it was not safe, nutritious or even beef, BPI was forced to close production facilities and lay-off employees after losing major restaurant and retail customers who were using the product to add to their own ground beef products.

In ruling ABC and Avila must face a jury trial, the judge said her ruling was based on there being sufficient evidence that the network and the reporter knew they were making false statements in light of the information in their possession. She said its possible a jury could find there is clear and convincing evidence that the defendants were reckless and engaged in “purposeful avoidance of the truth.”

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