ELK POINT, S.D. | As the Union County courtroom began to fill Wednesday morning, one could sense an atmosphere different from the one present in the room during the previous 17 days of trial in Beef Products Inc.'s $1.9 billion defamation lawsuit against ABC.
BPI's lawyers, usually serious and businesslike in the minutes before a session began, joked and laughed with one another.
BPI owners Eldon and Regina Roth were present as they had been through much of the trial, but were accompanied by several other family members. A contingent from the Siouxland Chamber of Commerce filled several seats in the room.
The scene begged the question: Was something up?
That question was answered seconds after Circuit Judge Cheryle Gering entered the courtroom and sat down, addressing the 16 jurors who had sat through hours of testimony from BPI witnesses called to support the company's claim that ABC news reports that had repeatedly used the term "pink slime" to describe BPI's Lean Finely Textured Beef product had caused millions of dollars in damages to the Dakota Dunes-based meat processor.
"Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have many things to tell you this morning," Gering said. "First of all, the case is settled. Neither the court, nor the jury, nor the public will be told the terms of the settlement today.
"The case is over."
Just like that, a trial expected to last eight weeks was settled midway through the fourth week.
BPI sued ABC, correspondent Jim Avila, who reported many of the stories, and several others who were later dismissed from the suit in September 2012, claiming that ABC knowingly used false information about LFTB during a series of reports in March and April 2012. Those reports regularly referred to the product as "pink slime," an unflattering moniker BPI said led consumers to believe the product was unsafe and low in nutritional value.
BPI, a privately held, family business once considered the world's largest producer of boneless beef, had sought $1.9 billion, a claim that could have been tripled to $5.7 billion under provisions of South Dakota's Agricultural Food Product Disparagement Act, a law designed to protect agricultural interests.
Terms of the settlement are confidential, but judging from the celebratory mood of BPI officials and their lawyers, it was apparent that the agreement was favorable to the company.
"We are extraordinarily pleased with this settlement," BPI attorney Dan Webb said outside the Union County Courthouse. "I believe we have totally vindicated the product."
Webb, a prominent trial attorney based in Chicago, took no questions from the media.
Eldon and Regina Roth were not made available to the media to answer questions. BPI and the Roths later issued a written statement that read in part: "While this was not an easy road to travel, it was necessary to begin rectifying the harm we suffered as a result of what we believed to be biased and baseless reporting in 2012. Through this process, we have again established what we all know to be true about Lean Finely Textured Beef: it is beef, and it is safe, wholesome and nutritious.
"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."
Avila spoke briefly after the announcement, first thanking the jurors for their service.
"I wish they had had the chance to hear my side of the story. It's important to note we're not retracting anything. We're not apologizing for anything," he said of the settlement.
Avila told reporters he supported the network making a business decision to settle the lawsuit.
In a written statement from ABC spokeswoman Julie Townsend, the network said the "amicable resolution" of the suit was in the network's best interests.
"Throughout this case, we have maintained that our reports accurately presented the facts and views of knowledgeable people about this product," Townsend said. "Although we have concluded that continued litigation of this case is not in the company's interests, we remain committed to the vigorous pursuit of truth and the consumer's right to know about the products they purchase."
ABC chose to settle before BPI had rested its case in the trial, which had to be moved to a makeshift courtroom in the Union County Courthouse basement because the regular courtroom was not large enough to hold all the lawyers and observers the trial attracted.
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The trial, considered the biggest in South Dakota history, began on June 5, but the story that led up to it started in 1981, when the Roths founded BPI and opened its first plant in Amarillo, Texas, utilizing machinery Eldon Roth invented to quickly freeze beef.
Another Eldon Roth invention allowed the fast-growing company, which moved its headquarters from Texas to South Dakota in 1992, to begin separating bits of lean beef from packinghouse trimmings, increasing the amount of meat harvested from cattle carcasses.
In the process, trimmings are heated and spun in a centrifuge to separate the lean meat from the fat before being treated with a puff of ammonium hydroxide gas to kill harmful bacteria. Later marketed as Lean Finely Textured Beef, the product was blended with ground beef to reduce fat content and sold in grocery stores and used by large fast-food chains and food service companies.
Gerald Zirnstein, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist, first used the "pink slime" phrase in an internal email in 2002 to describe LFTB. He and fellow USDA scientist Carl Custer had objected to the product being referred to as ground beef, and in a videotaped deposition shown at trial, Custer called LFTB a low-quality salvage product. Ultimately, a USDA undersecretary declared the product to be meat.
Zirnstein and Custer both were quoted in the 2012 ABC reports and were included in the initial lawsuit but were later dismissed by BPI, along with former BPI executive Kit Foshee, who also was critical of LFTB in ABC broadcasts.
From time to time, "pink slime" made headlines, including in the 2008 Academy Award-nominated film "Food Inc." and a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times series. ABC was turned on to BPI and LFTB after a March 5, 2012, story on The Daily, a now-defunct news organization that published primarily via iPad.
ABC News producers testified during the trial that the story sparked their interest in LFTB, leading to Avila's initial story, broadcast March 7, 2012, on "World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer." In the report, Avila referred to the product repeatedly as "pink slime" and said it was a "cheap filler" made of products once used only for pet food and cooking oil. That story and another the next night led to public outcry against LFTB, and many consumers demanded that it no longer be added to ground beef.
ABC continued to air stories, covering major grocery chains' decisions to drop LFTB from their ground beef, and parent groups' lobbying of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stop using the product for the federal school lunch program.
During his opening remarks on the trial's first day, Webb said ABC used the "pink slime" term more than 350 times during 131 broadcast reports, online stories and Facebook and Twitter posts while ignoring information provided by BPI and other meat industry experts who supported LFTB.
By the time ABC aired its final story a month later, BPI said it had lost more than 80 percent of its business, reporting a sales drop from 5 million pounds per week to 1.3 million pounds per week.
The losses caused BPI to close production plants in Waterloo, Iowa; Amarillo, Texas; and Garden City, Kansas; and lay off more than 700 workers, roughly half its work force. Only the company's production facility in South Sioux City survived.
BPI soon filed its suit, which also named Sawyer and ABC correspondent David Kerley, who also reported on the stories. BPI later dismissed Kerley from the suit. Gering dismissed Sawyer in February, saying that her role as a news show anchor limited her involvement in doing research and was not enough to establish defamation.
In a videotaped deposition shown to jurors at trial, Sawyer said she believed Avila's reporting was factual and credible. She said she was told that "pink slime" was "a correct descriptive term."
During the trial, ABC's lawyers were able to get BPI witnesses to admit that McDonald's, Taco Bell and Burger King -- among BPI's largest customers -- had already stopped using LFTB in the months before the network aired its reports.
On Monday, ABC attorney Dane Butswinkas continued to try to cast doubt on the network's culpability in the "pink slime" hysteria, focusing his cross examination of a BPI witness on news reports that had been published before ABC's series of stories.
But on Tuesday, Gering sent the jurors home minutes after convening in the morning, telling them a "major legal issue" had come up in the case.
The major issue turned out to be the finalization of the settlement agreement that surprised so many on Wednesday morning.
Before everyone associated with the case had left the courthouse, Gering's signed judgment dismissing the case had been filed. The order simply said that all claims against ABC had been dismissed.
It was a tidy two-page order putting an end to a case in which hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and exhibits had been filed.
Within an hour, a courthouse security checkpoint and metal detector that all who attended the trial had once been required to pass through had been dismantled, and few signs that a major trial had even taken place were visible inside the courthouse.
A courthouse worker walking through the lobby remarked to a co-worker, "The circus is over."
After more than four weeks of dozens of lawyers, media members and witnesses constantly passing through, the atmosphere inside the building had returned to normal.