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Oprah Found Not Liable Over Beef

February 26, 1998 GMT

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) _ Oprah Winfrey was found not liable for damages today for a show about mad cow disease that Texas cattlemen said sank prices and cost them millions of dollars.

Ms. Winfrey put her hands over her face and appeared to weep. Then she hugged and shook hands with her attorneys.

Spectators ran outside the courthouse to deliver the verdict, which jurors reached in the second day of deliberations. Cheers went up among the crowd outside.

The cattlemen had sued her over an April 16, 1996, episode of ``The Oprah Winfrey Show″ that they said gave the false impression that American beef could spread mad cow disease to people.

The lawsuit against the talk show host had been expected to be the biggest test yet of the ``veggie libel″ laws enacted in Texas and 12 other states in recent years to protect agricultural products from false and disparaging remarks.

But last week, in a big victory for Ms. Winfrey, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson ruled without explanation that the case could not go forward under the veggie libel law and would instead be tried as a conventional business defamation case.

That meant the cattlemen had to meet a higher burden of proof: They had to show Ms. Winfrey deliberately or recklessly hurt their business by way of false statements.

Ms. Winfrey was forced to defend herself in the heart of Texas beef country, where 25 percent of the nation’s grain-fed cattle is produced, where the city’s biggest private employer is a slaughterhouse, and where the courthouse has a mural of cattle above the elevators.

After hearing five weeks of testimony, jurors concluded that Ms. Winfrey, her production company and vegetarian activist guest Howard Lyman did not have to pay for any losses by cattlement. They had sought more than $11 million in damages.

During the show, Lyman, a former rancher now with the Humane Society of the United States, said that feeding ground-up cattle parts to cattle _ a practice banned last summer _ could spread mad cow disease in this country. At one point, Ms. Winfrey asked: ``You said this disease could make AIDS look like the common cold?″ And Lyman answered, ``Absolutely.″

To applause from the studio audience, Ms. Winfrey exclaimed: ``It has just stopped me from eating another burger!″

The cattlemen _ three cattle-feeding operations and four ranches, led by Paul Engler of Amarillo _ said prices fell to 10-year lows days after the show aired in what they termed the ``Oprah crash.″

Mad-cow disease has ravaged cattle in Britain since the late 1980s. The contaminated beef is suspected of causing at least 23 human deaths from the human version of the brain-destroying disease in Britain. But mad cow disease has never been found in the United States.

The cattlemen cast doubt on the threat of mad cow disease in the United States and attacked the ``Oprah″ producers’ motivations and their editing of the program, claiming Ms. Winfrey and others wanted a ``scary″ show to boost ratings.

``We have the right not to have our business damaged by a bunch of falsehoods shot out of Chicago,″ cattlemen’s lawyer David Mullin said in closing arguments.

Ms. Winfrey’s side argued that the dip was caused instead by high feed costs, oversupply and low prices. And Ms. Winfrey testified that she is the host of a talk show _ ``not the evening news″ _ and that her viewers know the difference.

``This case is about the First Amendment,″ defense attorney Charles Babcock said during closing arguments. ``It’s about robust debate and it’s about the unfettered interchange of ideas.″

Although Ms. Winfrey _ listed by Forbes magazine as the third-highest-paid entertainer, with a net worth of $550 million _ easily could have written the cattlemen a check, she refused to settle, and when she took the stand, she poured on the charm for the jury as if it were a studio audience.

``I felt it was important to be here to face this courtroom and the jurors and to defend my name,″ Ms. Winfrey said. ``In the end, all you have is your reputation.″

Many Amarillo residents clearly were infatuated with their famous guest, who proved to be the most exciting thing to happen around here in years. Curiosity seekers waited in long lines to hear her testify; tapings of her show _ which was moved from Chicago to Amarillo during the trial _ were the hottest ticket in town. Bumper stickers, buttons, banners, caps and T-shirts proclaiming ``Amarillo Loves Oprah″ could be seen around town.