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Disney Settles Defamation Case With Beef Products Inc.

Aug 12, 2017
Originally published on August 14, 2017 3:21 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

News on the pink slime front this week. ABC reported in 2012 on a processed beef product used as filler in a product sold by a South Dakota meat producer. Beef Products sued ABC for defamation and calls their product, quote, "lean finely textured beef" - more appetizing than pink slime. ABC News has not retracted or apologized for its investigative story. But it was reported this week that Disney, which owns ABC, settled the suit out of court for what we now know is an historically large number. Footnote in Disney's latest earnings report says the corporation paid $177 million for costs, quote, "incurred in connection with the litigation." The settlement itself is even larger but confidential. Lenn Niehoff is a professor of law at the University of Michigan. He joins us from Ann Arbor. Thanks so much for being with us.

LENN NIEHOFF: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Why would Disney pay what must be hundreds of millions of dollars to a South Dakota meat producer if their report was right?

NIEHOFF: Well, settlements are often reached even where the defendant believes that they didn't do anything wrong. It's a safer course and a more prudent course to resolve the case than it is to litigate. And in this particular case, ABC would have had good reasons to think that there were risks entailed in going forward with the trial.

SIMON: Like what, as you see it?

NIEHOFF: Well, there are a few things. First of all, ABC did try to get the case dismissed in the early going and the judge declined to do that. They tried to remove the case to federal court, which is a pretty well accepted strategy. But they couldn't remove it to federal court. So they were going to end up trying the case, really, in the plaintiff's backyard. So I think that those were risks combined with the fact that there's obviously a great deal of sort of free floating anti-media sentiment out there these days, which is hard to quantify. And the amount that was being requested by the plaintiff was, you know, billions, literally, billions of dollars.

SIMON: Does a large settlement like this just embolden other people to sue media companies?

NIEHOFF: Well, I think that after we see a large verdict or a large settlement, we do tend to see an uptick. Many plaintiffs and their lawyers think that maybe media entities are easy get-rich-quick targets. I think that's a mistake.

SIMON: Because they'll settle.

NIEHOFF: Because they'll settle. And I think that, in fact, most media entities are very hesitant to settle most cases. And the case law is very strong, which results in the dismissal of lots of these cases in the early going.

SIMON: Any idea, Professor, what this might mean for the future of Disney or any media outlet that wants to do investigative reporting?

NIEHOFF: Well, I think that, you know, these cases tend to be very fact specific. We're always - it always raises legitimate concerns when we see a large settlement or a large verdict because one of the things we worry about with the media - that in the news room, they will make decisions about how aggressively to report or whether to report on a story at all based on concerns about a large economic consequence down the road. So I think that that, you know, we don't yet know whether this is just a blip on the screen or whether liberty died a little bit this month. But the general pattern is that the courts tend to continue to endorse very strong protections, and media entities continue to be hesitant to resolve these cases.

SIMON: Lenn Niehoff is a professor of law, University of Michigan. Thanks so much for being with us.

NIEHOFF: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.