Dong-A Ilbo: Meat Importer Files Product Disparagement Lawsuit against Korean Braodcaster
A South Korean beef importer and restaurateur is suing the Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) network, five producers of the TV series PD Notebook and actress Kim Min-sun for airing a program titled “Is American Beef Really Safe from Mad Cow Disease?” about mad cow disease in the United States.
According to the Dong-A Ilbo,
The five were booked without physical detention on the charge of intentionally distorting and exaggerating facts about the risk of mad cow disease in American beef.
Mr. Park Chang-kyu is claiming 300 million won ($240,000) in damages although he claims to have incurred over 1.50 billion won ($1.22 million) in operating losses.
We suffered huge damages because the MBC report discouraged consumers from eating American beef, forcing dozens of Orae Dream restaurants to shut down. The candlelight vigils also delayed our beef import schedules by more than a month,” he said. “We’ve suffered 1.5 billion won (1.22 million dollars) in damages, but I seek just 300 million won (240,000 dollars) in compensation for now.
According to the Dong-A Ilbo, Park who is the president of A Meat and restaurant chain Orae Dream is the first US beef importer to file a product disparagement suit against MBC. The popular MBC program sparked widespread protests in Seoul and helped stymie the Korea/U.S. Free Trade Agreement talks last year.
In May 2008, actress Kim Min-sun posted a comment on her website saying, “It is insane to import American beef with bones since it could cause mad cow disease. I’d rather eat potassium cyanide.” A promise she was apparently spotted breaking within a couple of months after her blog post.
There are striking similarities between this lawsuit and a class-action lawsuit filed against Oprah Winfrey by the Texas Beef Group. The trade group claimed that Texas ranchers had suffered more than $12 million in economic damages after she aired a show on April 16, 1996, discussing mad cow disease.
When Winfrey’s mad cow disease show aired on U.S. television, cases of the disease in humans were limited to the United Kingdom. At that time, there were no known cases of the disease in the United States.
One of her featured guests that day was Howard Lyman, a former cattle rancher who had repented of his carnivorous ways and had become a vegetarian food activist. He told Winfrey’s 15 million-strong audience:
One hundred thousand cows per year in the United States are fine at night, dead in the morning. The majority of those cows are rounded up, ground up, fed back to other cows. If only one of them has mad cow disease, [it] has the potential to infect thousands.
After Lyman provided some more colorful and gory details about how some cows were fed commercial feeds made from the cooked and “sterilized” remains of cows and other animals, Winfrey exclaimed, “It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger!”
Those comments and the subsequent drop in cattle prices spurred the cattle ranchers in Texas to sue Winfrey and Lyman and test Texas’ new product-disparagement law.
The Texas law stated that people could be held legally liable if they make false and disparaging statements about perishable food products, and raw beef is certainly perishable. Twelve other U.S. states, including Georgia and Idaho, have similar laws on the books.
After a six-week trial, Winfrey and her co-defendants were found not guilty by a court of beef-loving folks in Amarillo, Texas. The jury verdict in Winfrey’s favor was upheld on appeal.
At this point, the food-disparagement lawsuit filed in Seoul Southern District Court is not a class-action lawsuit. Park told the Dong-A Ilbo:
American beef importers in Korea have suffered about 300 billion won ($240 million) in collective damages, but I understand companies are taking steps to file individual lawsuits since they incurred differing amounts of losses.
Although there are obvious similarities between the two stories, there are also clear differences. The experts interviewed on The Oprah Winfrey show may have used very colorful, graphic language, but the basics facts were truthful and held up under close scrutiny in a court of law.
The Korean Communications Commission (KCC) investigated MBC’s mad cow disease program, and their conclusions weren’t very charitable. They found that MBC’s program was based on distortions of scientific data, use of questionable film footage, purposeful mistranslations of English interviews and flat-out lies. On August 12, 2008, the KCC forced MBC to apologize on air for its mistranslations. I’m sure the KCC’s report and other evidence will end up on the evidence table during this trial as well.
Some claim that this lawsuit is an attack on free speech in the same way that the lawsuit against The Oprah Winfrey show was back in 1996. However, in America truth is an absolute defense against libel.
I will be watching the coverage of this Korean food-disparagement trail closely. I’m sure all of us will learn a thing or two about Korean media law by the time the jury has rendered its verdict in this case.