PIERRE, S.D. | The South Dakota Supreme Court refused Thursday to hear an ABC News appeal of a lower court ruling to allow Beef Products Inc.'s $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against the network to proceed to the discovery phase.
Union County Circuit Court Judge Cheryle Gering on March 27 denied motions by ABC and other defendants to throw out the case. In an April 23 appeal, ABC petitioned the Supreme Court to reverse or clarify portions of Gering's decision related to common law disparagement claims, and South Dakota's Agricultural Foods Products Disparagement Act, or AFPDA.
Supreme Court Chief Justice David Gilbertson had granted ABC's motion to suspend the litigation while the high court considered the request. In a two-page order Thursday, the Supreme Court denied the appeals from ABC and other defendants in the case -- 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 reports -- and lifted the stay.
"We are pleased with the decision of the South Dakota Supreme Court," BPI attorney Erik Connolly said in a statement Thursday. "We look forward to starting discovery."
An attorney for ABC declined comment Thursday.
BPI is suing ABC over a series of reports in March 2012 in which the network repeatedly referred to the Dakota Dunes-based company's Lean Finely Textured Beef as "pink slime."
The family business alleges the coverage misled consumers into believing its low-fat, nutritional product was unsafe to eat. As a result, the company claims it lost more than $400 million in sales and was forced to close three of its four plants and eliminate more than 700 jobs.
If a jury would rule in its favor, BPI would be entitled to triple damages, or $1.2 billion, under South Dakota's agriculture food disparagement law.