A jury Thursday rejected a lawsuit by Texas cattlemen who claimed Oprah Winfrey's televised comments about mad cow disease caused the beef market to plummet and cost them millions of dollars.
Winfrey put her hands over her face and appeared to weep. Then she hugged and shook hands with her attorneys."Free speech not only lives. It rocks!" she declared later to a cheering crowd outside the courthouse. "I believe we had right on our side from the beginning," she said. "But you never know. Twelve people can see things 12 separate ways."
The verdict - reached on the second day of jury deliberations - would be appealed, plaintiffs' attorneys said.
"You'd have to be blind to say (jurors) weren't influenced by one of the 25 most influential Americans," said Joe Coyne, lawyer for cattleman Paul Engler. He referred to a 1996 Time magazine article ranking Winfrey in the top 25.
"I put all my heart and my life into this (case)," said another disappointed attorney, David Mullin. "I didn't expect this."
The cattlemen had sued over an April 16, 1996, broadcast of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that they said gave the false impression that American beef could spread mad cow disease to people.
Juror Pat Gowdy said the panel's discussion turned on First Amendment questions. "We felt that a lot of rights have eroded in this country. Our freedom of speech may be the only one we have left to regain what we've lost," he said.
The lawsuit against the talk show host had been expected to be the biggest test yet of the "veggie libel" laws enacted in Texas and 12 other states in recent years to protect agricultural products from false and disparaging remarks.
But last week, in a big victory for Winfrey, U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson ruled that the case could not go forward under the veggie libel law and would instead be tried as a conventional business defamation case.