GREENSBORO, N.C. - Food Lion's award from Capital Cities-ABC Inc. for a hidden-camera expose that accused the grocery chain of selling rat-gnawed cheese and rotting meat was reduced Friday from $5.5 million to $315,000, an ABC attorney said.
In a 34-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Carlton Tilley also refused Food Lion's request that ABC pay its legal fees, said Randy Turk, an ABC attorney in Washington.
In arguing that the award should be reduced, ABC attorney Nat Lewin called the size of the award unconstitutional. He said during a hearing in June that large penalties should not be imposed on the media for using deceptive means to gather information for a story unless it results in bodily harm.
"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 ... " Mr. Lewin told Judge Tilley.
Food Lion attorneys told the judge that what ABC wanted was tantamount to a license to cheat, lie and trespass with blanket protection of the U.S. Constitution.
The Salisbury-based supermarket chain filed a motion earlier this month asking Judge Tilley to award legal fees "in excess of one million dollars" in addition to the $5.5 million in punitive damages awarded by a jury to Food Lion in January.
Food Lion said it was entitled to seek the payment for attorney costs under North Carolina's Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act. ABC had argued that UTPA did not apply to news organizations, but, in a July decision, Judge Tilley disagreed.
In January, a jury awarded Food Lion $1,402 in compensatory damages for fraud, trespass and breach of loyalty for the report that aired Nov. 5, 1992, on PrimeTime Live. The money was for the cost of hiring and paying two ABC producers who got jobs in Food Lion stores in North Carolina and South Carolina.
The same jury later awarded Food Lion $5.5 million in punitive damages because ABC representatives lied in order to videotape evidence.
In July, Judge Tilley ruled Food Lion was entitled to seek damages on its claim that the network violated the state's unfair trade practices law in gathering information for its 1992 expose on the chain's food-handling practices.
But Judge Tilley added that the supermarket chain must choose between seeking damages for violating the UTPA and seeking damages on its claim that ABC Inc. committed fraud.
Food Lion disagreed, saying that it deserved both.