ABC aims to limit liability from investigative reports

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Punitive damages should not be awarded when investigative reporters tell lies because such fibs have a long and honorable history, an attorney for ABC television said in a court hearing Monday.

ABC is challenging a jury’s $5.5 million punitive damage award to Food Lion for a 1992 ”PrimeTime Live” expose that accused the supermarket chain of selling rat-gnawed cheese and rotten meat.

”Making false representations in order to get into position to see, report or photograph what has been concealed has been an integral part of investigative journalism for centuries,” ABC attorney Nat Lewin said in U.S. District Court.

At issue is a January jury verdict that ABC and other defendants must pay punitive damages to the Salisbury, N.C.-based chain for lying to get the videotaped evidence it used in the report.

U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Tilley was hearing arguments on several post-verdict motions in the case, which put hidden-camera journalism on trial.

Lewin pointed out the jury found ABC liable for just $1,400 in compensatory damages, but awarded more than $5 million in punitive damages. The compensatory damages covered the cost of hiring and paying two ABC producers who lied on their applications for entry-level jobs and wore spy cameras and hidden recorders to work.

”This opens the door to permit these kind of lawsuits and threatens future investigative reports like this,” Lewin said.

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