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Editorial: Food Lion ruling protects those who protect public

Arizona Daily Wildcat,
October 22, 1999
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In an attempt to get around First Amendment protection of the free press, the Food Lion supermarket chain sued ABC and two reporters who revealed the truth about their repugnant meat handling policies. That's not news. What is important is the cautionary tale of the way in which they went about their case, and the way in which they almost won.

During a November, 1992 episode of "PrimeTime Live," ABC revealed the results of its hidden camera investigation into meat handling at two Food Lion stores in North Carolina. What they found was shocking: employees ground outdated beef with new beef, bleached rancid meat in order to remove the smell, repackaged fish that had expired and using barbecue sauce to cover the smell of rank chicken. Having been repackaged, the chicken was then sold in the gourmet foods department.

For Food Lion, this was obviously a problem. Most of the damage had been done, but they couldn't roll over without a fight. Generally, companies are able to protect themselves from this sort of media coverage by proving that the story is not true. For Food Lion, however, this was not really an option. Everything that ABC charged was backed-up with videotape. Publicly, they would continue to deny the charges, but they couldn't back it up in court.

Since it couldn't follow the accepted routes for combating media claims, libel and slander, it had to find a new reason to take ABC to court. It claimed that ABC and the reporters, Lynne Dale and Susan Barnett, committed fraud against the supermarket chain by lying on their resum­s, causing the company to train workers that did not intend to pursue a career at Food Lion, trespassing and secretly shooting videotape in stores.

In short, Food Lion tried to shift the issue from its rancid meat to the reporters that uncovered it. In a surprise, the jury fell for it. They rewarded the supermarket chain $1,402 for the amount of wages that it paid the two fraudulent workers, but coupled this with a massive punitive judgment: $5.5 million. A very dangerous precedent was being set for potential runs around the First Amendment.

It seems that the jury was upset at the media at large. They were tired of hidden camera investigations and a press that they perceived as being one step on the moral ladder below lawyers and sea slugs. They lost sight of the big issues: freedom of the press and the right of the public to be informed in their outrage.

ABC appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, where a decision was delivered this week. In their ruling, the court struck to the heart of the matter. Even if the reporters deceived the supermarket chain, it wasn't their deception that hurt Food Lion. Rather, it was the supermarket that hurt itself. In a 2-1 ruling, the court overturned the punitive and compensatory damages. Appropriately, it upheld $1 in damages against each reporter for trespass and breaching their duty to be loyal to Food Lion.

Thankfully, the court was able to see through Food Lion's claims, and protect those who were protecting the public from the rancid meat of the supermarket chain. But it shows that we must remain vigilant, because next time, we may not be so lucky.

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