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Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Judge dismisses lingering beef lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey

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By MARK BABINECK Associated Press Writer

After six years, escalating legal fees and a celebrated trial in the heart of Texas cattle country, a federal judge has dismissed a lingering lawsuit accusing Oprah Winfrey of maligning the beef industry.

U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson threw out "all claims and causes of action asserted or that could have been asserted" by Cactus Feeding Club Inc. and against Winfrey, her production company and vegetarian activist Howard Lyman.

The lawsuit, filed in April 1998, was similar to another suit filed two years earlier that went to trial in Robinson's court in January 1998. The first suit caused Winfrey to move her popular talk show to Amarillo for several episodes during the trial, creating a carnival-like atmosphere in the Texas Panhandle city for six weeks.

After Winfrey won at trial, 138 livestock owners sued her again in Dumas, a town of 13,000 about 45 miles north of Amarillo. But the case was quickly moved back to Robinson's federal court, over the objections of plaintiff's attorney Kevin Isern, and has sat there for four years.

"It was kind of a soft landing to a hard trial," said Chip Babcock, a top-gun First Amendment attorney who represented Winfrey in the case.

Cattlemen contended in both suits that Lyman violated Texas' "veggie libel" law during an April 1996 edition of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" by saying U.S. beef could be at risk of spreading mad cow disease.

The incurable illness, blamed for several human deaths in England, had not been detected in U.S. herds before the show or in the 6 1/2 years since.

Plaintiffs also accused Winfrey's show of editing the program to portray the beef industry negatively and complained her vow never to eat another hamburger also damaged potential sales.

In the weeks after the show, already slumping cattle prices dropped to 10-year lows. Cactus Feeders Inc. owner Paul Engler, who was behind both lawsuits, unsuccessfully appealed the verdict to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Babcock said his side expects to recover $85,000 in court costs, but otherwise Robinson ruled each side must cover its own expenses in her order dated Aug. 27.

Neither Engler nor Winfrey immediately returned messages seeking comment Tuesday.

The Amarillo trial sparked a media encampment outside the federal courthouse and long lines of residents wanting to get into the courtroom and the local theater where Winfrey did several of her shows.

Winfrey testified, defending the show and its right to have guests speak their minds. Lyman, a former rancher who became an animal rights advocate, stood by his statements on the witness stand.

Winfrey attended the courtroom every day, then taped shows in the evenings. When the trial ended, she told a jubilant crowd on the courthouse steps, "Free speech rocks!"

The legal morass was estimated to have cost Winfrey as much as $1 million, with the cattlemen spending perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars themselves.

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