The Counsellor's Corner
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
Did you think that the Oprah Winfrey trial was ridiculous? Did you think that her comments about beef called for her to be found civilly liable and to pay millions of dollars to cattlemen? Fortunately, the jury did its job in what I would deem to be an appropriate fashion, however, this is not the last of the burgeoning field of food lawsuits.
The emu is the next animal that is to be the subject of a jury trial. That's right, the emu. Again we are in Texas where ranchers are now suing Honda, yes, Honda, for having had the nerve to air a television commercial showing a man driving a Honda Civic from one off-beat job to another. "Fowl Technology," an emu ranch in Amarillo, Texas, was one of the wacky job locations to which the Honda Civic driver drove. The commercial featured the owner of the emu ranch telling the Honda Civic driver that emus were the pork of the future.
Texan John Hamby, one of ten plaintiffs suing Honda, complains that Honda "made people stop and look at emu meat, emu products, and the emu business as a joke." Hamby and the other ranchers complained that emus are much more healthy than pork in that while they are a red meat, they are low-fat. Honda is being sued for $750,000.00; $75,000.00 per plaintiff.
In the Oprah Winfrey case, her comments about mad cow disease were alleged to have impacted the sales of beef and the Texas jury decided that the cattlemen had not met their burden of proof. Those who are viewing the emu case feel that the emu ranchers are headed for the same fate. In order to succeed at trial, the libel laws require that a defendant makes a knowingly false and defamatory statement about the product. All Oprah did was acknowledge a fear of mad cow disease which had become a regularly discussed topic in this country in 1996. What was Honda's crime? They ran an ad during which they poked fun at emu ranchers.
Where is this litigation coming from and where is it going? It's starting to become very risky to speak in a public context. In our nation's capital, Ken Starr issues subpoenas for those who disparage him or members of his staff and now in Texas one comments about food at one's own risk.
While I was no big fan of George Bush, I miss the days, not so long ago when then-President Bush could indicate that he didn't like broccoli, and other than some hurt feelings in the broccoli camp, that was that. I wonder what would happen if George Bush made his broccoli comments today? President Bush's Vice President Quayle apparently picked a societally appropriate time to spell potato with an "e"; I wouldn't advise it in the current litigious climate with respect to food.
I believe that this country which has been overly litigious for some time now is using the judicial system in a totally inappropriate manner. Speech yields consequences, however, these consequences need not all be redressed in court. This might be a good time for everyone to lighten up a little. A television commercial that pokes fun at emu ranchers should not put Honda in a position where it stands to lose $750,000.00, not to mention the dollars spent defending itself in this case. I do believe there are times when inappropriate speech should be dealt with in court; however, it would be nice if a realistic appraisal of what was said and whether or not litigation is the appropriate response started to take over from the "let's sue first, and ask questions later" point of view which seems to permeate society at present.
And who really listens to Oprah and Honda anyway regarding food? If Oprah Winfrey makes a statement about beef, it's not going to cause me to stop eating beef. I might spend a little more time reading the newspaper the next day with respect to the status of beef in this country, however, Oprah talking about mad cow disease is not going to affect my eating habits. Neither is a commercial from Honda joking about emu beef. The last time I checked, Honda sold cars, not beef.
If you'll excuse me, I'm about to go have a nice thick steak with a couple of emu burgers on the side.
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Charlie Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger. Mr.Unger has obtained his doctorate in psychology and writes a bi-monthly column on legal and psychological issues.