Slime Defamation Suit May Stick Against ABC

     (CN) - A South Dakota beef producer may be able to prove a $1.2 billion defamation suit alleging that ABC News and Diane Sawyer portrayed its "lean, finely textured beef" product as "pink slime," a judge ruled.
     Union County Circuit Judge Cheryle Gering rejected 21 of 26 motions to dismiss on Thursday.
     South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., BPI Technology Inc. and Freezing Machines Inc. sued ABC, ABC News, journalist Diane Sawyer and others in September 2012.
     The beef producers claim the network ran a month-long "disinformation campaign" about its lean finely textured beef (LFTB) additive product that they claim is safe and has lowered the cost of beef for 20 years.
     "Between March 7 and April 3, 2012, ABC aired 11 broadcasts attacking BPI and LFTB. Defendants supplemented the broadcasts with 14 online reports and numerous social media postings," the 263-page complaint states. "Over these 28 days, defendants knowingly or recklessly made nearly 200 false, defamatory, and disparaging statements regarding BPI and LFTB."
     They say ABC repeatedly called the additive "pink slime" to where the product has essentially been renamed.
     "There is not a more offensive way of describing a food product than to call it 'slime,' which is a noxious, repulsive, and filthy fluid not safe for human consumption," according to the complaint.
     In a 41-page opinion refusing to dismiss most of the 26 claims, Gering shot down ABC's argument that its reports are protected free speech.
     The beef producers accused the defendants of "intending to interfere with the business relationships" by blacklisting the publishing names of grocery stores that sold LFTB.
     "Simply put, none of the cases cited in defendants' brief stand for the proposition that news organizations are immune from suit for tortious interference with a business relationship under the First Amendment," Gering wrote. "The ABC defendants' status as news reporters and news organizations does not give them immunity from such a claim."
     Gering was careful to not rule yet on whether defamation or disparagement actually took place.
     "In making this ruling, it must be noted that the issue before the court is whether the plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged, as a matter of law, claims for defamation and disparagement," she wrote. "The court is not reaching any conclusions as to whether the alleged defamatory or disparaging statements are actually true or not true."
     Gering did dismiss five of the beef producer's common-law disparagement claims, finding that South Dakota's existing food-disparagement laws pre-empt them.
     ABC did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.