Auvil v. CBS 60 Minutes

67 F.3d 816 (1995)

Quick Summary

Grady and Lillie Auvil et al. (plaintiffs), representing Washington State apple growers, sued CBS 60 Minutes (defendant) for product disparagement following a broadcast about Alar on apples. The growers claimed that CBS falsely portrayed Alar as a cancer-causing agent, leading to a decrease in apple sales and financial harm.

The main issue was whether the broadcast contained false statements about Alar’s safety. The court concluded that scientific evidence supported CBS’s statements and that no genuine issue of material fact existed about their falsity, affirming summary judgment for CBS.

Facts of the Case

Grady and Lillie Auvil et al. (plaintiffs) are Washington State apple growers who sued CBS 60 Minutes (defendant) following a news segment that criticized their use of Alar, a chemical applied to apples.

The segment, aired on February 26, 1989, claimed Alar was a cancer-causing agent, which led to a significant drop in consumer demand for apples, causing substantial financial losses for the growers.

The plaintiffs alleged product disparagement against CBS, asserting that the broadcast’s statements about Alar were false and had damaged their livelihoods.

After the district court granted summary judgment for CBS, the growers appealed, maintaining that the broadcast conveyed a false message about the safety of their apples.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The apple growers filed suit against CBS for product disparagement in Washington State Superior Court in November 1990.
  2. CBS removed the case to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Washington on diversity grounds in December 1990.
  3. The district court denied the growers’ motion to remand and dismissed claims against CBS’s local affiliates.
  4. After discovery limited to the question of falsity, both parties moved for summary judgment.
  5. The district court granted summary judgment to CBS, concluding that the growers had not presented sufficient evidence of falsity.
  6. The growers appealed the summary judgment ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

I.R.A.C. Format

Issue

Whether the CBS broadcast contained false statements about the carcinogenic nature of Alar on apples, amounting to product disparagement.

Rule of Law

To establish a claim of product disparagement, a plaintiff must prove that the defendant published a knowingly false statement harmful to the plaintiff’s pecuniary interests. Statements based on legitimate scientific findings and acknowledged risks by regulatory agencies are typically not considered false.

Reasoning and Analysis

The appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision, agreeing that the apple growers did not present a genuine issue of material fact as to the falsity of the broadcast. The court reasoned that scientific studies and EPA findings supported CBS’s claims about Alar’s carcinogenic potential.

Additionally, the court found no merit in the growers’ argument that animal studies cannot indicate cancer risks to humans, as animal studies are a recognized method for assessing such risks.

The court also rejected the growers’ attempt to claim falsity based on an implied overall message from the broadcast. The court held that analysis of falsity should focus on specific statements rather than an inferred overall message, as this could lead to uncertainty and potentially chill free speech.

Conclusion

The appellate court affirmed the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of CBS, concluding that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding the falsity of statements made in the broadcast.

Key Takeaways

  1. Product disparagement claims require proof that published statements are knowingly false and harmful to the plaintiff’s pecuniary interests.
  2. Scientific studies and regulatory agency findings can substantiate claims made in broadcasts and protect against allegations of falsity.
  3. Courts focus on specific statements rather than implied overall messages when analyzing claims of product disparagement.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What determines the line between opinion and false statement in product disparagement cases?

In product disparagement cases, a statement must be provably false rather than an opinion to be actionable. Courts look for specifically verifiable facts that can be proven true or false. Opinions, which are subjective and may vary from person to person, generally do not meet the threshold for legal action.

  • For example: If a restaurant critic says ‘The steak at this restaurant is the worst,’ it’s an opinion. However, if they falsely claim ‘The meat served is spoiled,’ that is a factual assertion that could be defamatory if false and damaging.

How do courts evaluate scientific evidence in product disparagement claims?

Courts will scrutinize the reliability and consensus of scientific evidence presented in product disparagement claims. They often consider whether the evidence is peer-reviewed, its acceptance within the scientific community, and any official positions of regulatory bodies.

  • For example: If there’s a widespread scientific consensus that a food additive is safe but one study claims otherwise, courts will weigh the totality of scientific evidence rather than rely on a singular, potentially outlier study.

What is required for a business to show pecuniary loss due to disparagement?

To demonstrate pecuniary loss in disparagement cases, businesses need to provide concrete evidence of financial harm directly linked to the false statements. This may include sales records before and after the disparaging comments, market analysis, or customer testimonials indicating the loss was due to those comments.

  • For example: If a company’s sales data show a significant decrease immediately following a disparaging news report and they can rule out other causes for the loss, this could constitute evidence of pecuniary damage.

References

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