Five years ago, when Beef Products, Inc. was in the throes of a catastrophic public relations crisis related to its primary product, lean finely textured beef, I wrote a column in The Journal supporting the Roth family and defending BPI. In that piece, I questioned why none of the national media had taken the occasion to report on any of the philanthropy engaged in by company founders Eldon and Regina Roth. Back then I wrote, “With their apparently insatiable appetite for BPI of late, I hope the national media covers some of what they've overlooked about this company and its owners thus far.”
A short time later, after reluctantly closing three of its four plants and being forced to lay off approximately 750 employees, BPI contemplated litigation as a response to what it viewed as slandering of its remarkably successful business. Although countless legal scholars warned that they would never prevail in a lawsuit and that BPI would waste tens of millions of dollars on attorneys’ fees and legal costs in the process, the South Dakota farm kid (who barely graduated from high school) decided to ignore the experts and press forward with a lawsuit against one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. Truly a modern-day David versus Goliath.
Some declared BPI’s effort a fool’s errand. Professors pontificated on how high a bar the law had established for plaintiffs to prevail in a defamation case. Others surmised that Disney, parent company of ABC News, would simply crush BPI with exorbitant legal expenses and force BPI to spend until they had no choice but to surrender. Despite the many naysayers, staggering costs, and overwhelming odds, Eldon and Regina Roth decided to fight on.
A full five and a half extremely stressful years later, after enduring an unimaginable roller-coaster ride through our country’s complex legal system, the Roth family and BPI confirmed they had settled their lawsuit against ABC News for an undisclosed amount. Numerous media outlets reported that a Disney quarterly financial report divulged a $177 million litigation settlement. Other reports stated this amount only reflected a partial settlement figure and that the media giant’s insurance companies would have to contribute even more to the final settlement amount.
Whatever the case, BPI’s attorney, Dan Webb, stated, “We are extraordinarily pleased with this settlement. I believe we have totally vindicated the product." The website of Webb’s Chicago-based law firm boasts that its efforts helped achieve a settlement for BPI that “has been widely reported as the ‘largest’ and ‘one of the most significant’ defamation cases in U.S. history.”
Not bad for a couple of supposedly overmatched underdogs from flyover country.
After the settlement had been announced, BPI released a statement that read, "This agreement provides us with a strong foundation on which to grow the business, while allowing us to remain focused on achieving the vision of the Roth and BPI family."
While BPI now plans to focus its re-energized efforts on continued growth, we recently learned that the company has identified some unfinished business it still wishes to address. Recognizing that hundreds of its valued employees lost their jobs as a result of the media attacks on their company, one of BPI’s first post-legal-settlement actions was to establish a $10 million fund to assist former workers who suffered financial hardship. Said BPI founder Eldon Roth, "We remain committed to our employees and communities and so are dedicating $10 million to benefit the employees who lost their jobs in 2012."
Half a decade after the company was devastated, BPI and the Roth family have established a multi-million-dollar fund to help the people who were hit the hardest by the misguided media reports that turned their own lives upside down back in March 2012.
While such corporate benevolence is certainly rare, if not unprecedented, it should surprise no one that the national media instigators who lost big in southeast South Dakota this summer still couldn’t quite muster the stomach to say something favorable about BPI and the extraordinarily generous $10 million fund its founders established to help the folks who need it most.
Chris McGowan is president of the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce.