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ABC ordered to pay Food Lion $5.5 million for hidden-camera expose

January 22, 1997

GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) _ A jury Wednesday ordered ABC to pay Food Lion more than $5.5 million for sending two reporters undercover with cameras in their wigs for an expose accusing the supermarket chain of selling spoiled meat.

While Food Lion disputed the allegations in the 1992 ``PrimeTime Live″ report, it was ABC’s newsgathering methods that were at issue in the federal trial. The jury earlier found the network committed fraud, trespassing and breach of loyalty.

But in the closely watched case that opened a new line of legal attack against the media _ and put undercover reporting itself on trial _ Food Lion got far less than the $52.5 million to $1.9 billion in punitive damages it sought.

Juror Tony Kinton called the award a ``slap on the wrist.″

``We weren’t in there trying to handcuff the media,″ explained Gregory Mack, foreman of the jury that deliberated the damages for six days. ``We would not have gotten the story if the media had not gone in.″

Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer in Washington, called the Food Lion verdict emotional, irrational and unconstitutional and said it will force journalists to think twice before doing investigative pieces.

``It’s punishing the messenger, plain and simple,″ Sanford said.

The jury, in the second multimillion-dollar verdict against ABC in as many months, ordered the network to pay $5.5 million and its employees an additional $45,750.

ABC said it will appeal.

ABC News president Roone Arledge called the punitive damages troubling, noting they were about 4,000 times the amount of compensatory damages.

``If large corporations were allowed to stop hard-hitting investigative journalism, the American people would be the losers,″ Arledge said in a statement.

The ``PrimeTime Live″ report _ narrated by Diane Sawyer _ accused Food Lion of selling rat-gnawed cheese, expired meat and old ham and fish that had been washed in bleach to kill its smell. Food Lion denied the allegations and said it lost more than $1 billion in sales and stock value because of the report, but the judge barred the supermarket chain from seeking compensatory damages for those losses.

ABC producers Lynn Dale and Susan Barnett landed jobs as food handlers at Food Lion and went to work there with tiny cameras hidden in their wigs and microphones inside their clothing. Small video decks were strapped to their bodies and activated by a switch in their pockets.

Former executive producer Richard Kaplan was ordered to pay $35,000 in punitive damages and Ira Rosen, the head of the show’s investigative unit, was told to pay $10,750. Dale and Barnett, who used fakes references and backgrounds to get jobs at Food Lion stores, will not have to pay punitive damages.

`What frightens me most about all this is that Food Lion tried to punish us as journalists without ever challenging the truth of the broadcast,″ Ms. Dale said. ``I think that should concern anyone who cares about a free press in this country.″

Richard Wyatt, an attorney for Food Lion, said the truth of the broadcast would be addressed in a separate lawsuit filed against the supermarket chain by its own shareholders.

Last month, a federal jury in Miami awarded a savings and loan executive $10 million, deciding that ABC’s ``20/20″ libeled him for falsely portraying him as a thief.

Mack, the jury foreman in the Food Lion case, said of the verdict: ``The media has a right to bring the news, but they have to watch what they do. It’s like a football game. There are boundaries, and you have to make sure you don’t go outside the boundaries.″

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