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BPI defamation lawsuit

BPI co-founder Eldon Roth listens during a Sept. 13 news conference where the Dakota Dunes-based company announced it had filed a $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC News and other defendants. BPI claims a series of defamatory reports a year ago caused the company to lose 80 percent of its business, close three of its four plants and lay off more than 700 workers.

DAKOTA DUNES | The Reuters news service on Monday published an extensive story that examines Beef Products Inc.'s $1.2 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC News, anchor Diane Sawyer, correspondent Jim Avila and four other individual defendants.

The story, headlined "Special Report: Did Diane Sawyer smear "pink slime?", comes on the eve of the one-year anniversary of a month-long series of ABC World News broadcasts in which Sawyer and Avila repeatedly referred to BPI's signature lean finely textured beef as "pink slime."

BPI blames ABC for igniting a consumer backlash that suddenly led to the loss of 80 percent of the previously thriving company's sales. A year later, the Dakota Dunes-based company's finances have yet to recover.

A BPI official said the company cooperated with the Reuters coverage, which was months in the making, and will include at least one additional story.

BPI founders Eldon and Regina Roth told the news agency they plan to "pursue their fight against ABC even if it takes years and tens of millions of dollars in legal fees."

"We have to do this," Eldon Roth told Reuters. "We have no other choice."

In the byline story by P.J. Huffstutter and Martha Graybow, the lawsuit BPI filed against ABC last September is described as "shaping up as one of the most high-stakes defamation court battles in U.S. history."

"Libel cases are extremely difficult to win in the U.S. because of strong press protections, and ABC has compelling legal arguments."

"However interviews with BPI's founders, agriculture industry officials and legal experts, as well as a review of federal documents and court records, suggest that ABC's reports had certain flaws that could resonate with a jury: ABC's lead reporter on the story mischaracterized BPI's product on Twitter; the network failed to clearly describe on-air how the company's beef wound up in the nation's food supply; and ABC did not reveal in an interview with a former BPI employee that he had lost a wrongful termination lawsuit against the company.

The story has some interesting nuggets, including one involving ex-BPI employee Kit Foshee, who was interviewed for some of the ABC reports, and was named as a defendant in the defamation suit.

BPI fired Foshee in 2001, and later took him to court, alleging theft of trade secrets. Foshee counter-sued for wrongful termination. A jury sided with BPI.

Last summer, a few months after his ABC interview, Foshee drove onto the parking lot of BPI's Dakota Dunes headquarters and spoke with employees, according to Reuters.

"Kit stated it wasn't over and that he looked forward to more things happening to Eldon Roth," according to a copy of an affidavit of one BPI employee who spoke with Foshee. BPI and the Roths returned to South Dakota state court last summer and were granted a restraining order against Foshee. Foshee's lawyer, Steven Sanford, said the restraining order does not matter to his client "since he has no desire ever to return."

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