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Court shares light moment during Oprah jury selection

Oprah arrival
Oprah Winfrey arrived at court early Tuesday   
January 20, 1998
Web posted at: 4:05 p.m. EST (2105 GMT)

AMARILLO, Texas (CNN) -- Animal-rights advocates in cow suits were among the spectators outside a federal courthouse Tuesday for the start of jury selection in the beef industry lawsuit against talk show host Oprah Winfrey.

U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson questioned a pool of 58 potential jurors. At least nine were dismissed. Some admitted ties to the beef industry as ranchers, former ranchers or friends of plaintiffs; others said they would tend to favor Winfrey in the case.

Amarillo cattle feeder Paul Engler and other cattlemen are suing Winfrey and vegetarian activist Howard Lyman over comments they made about beef safety on her April 16, 1996, show.

During the program, Lyman contended that feeding ground-up animal parts to cattle, a practice that was banned in the United States last summer, could spread mad cow disease to humans in the United States.

To applause from the studio audience, Winfrey exclaimed: "It has just stopped me from eating another burger!"

Clip from the Winfrey show
Oprah says she won't eat another burger
video icon 2MB/16 sec./240x180
655K/16 sec./160x120
QuickTime movie

After the broadcast, already slumping cattle prices fell to some of their lowest levels in a decade. Engler claimed he lost $6.7 million. He and other plaintiffs who later joined the suit are seeking to recoup total losses of more than $12 million, plus other, unspecified damages.

Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a brain-destroying disease that has afflicted cattle in Britain since the late 1980s.

It is believed to have been spread by cattle feed containing ground-up sheep parts, but it was not until 1996 that British scientists announced that humans may have contracted the disease by eating the beef.

Winfrey evokes laughter

Winfrey sat in court with her attorneys and listened intently to the proceedings. She was cheered when she left the courthouse during a lunch break.

At one point, there was laughter in the courtroom. When Robinson asked if any of the potential jurors was a regular viewer of the show, three women stood.

"The Oprah Winfrey Show" took mad cow disease as a topic in its April 16, 1996, broadcast   

When one was asked if she liked the show, she replied: "I've enjoyed some and not enjoyed some."

Winfrey then smirked, drawing laughter throughout the courtroom, even from the judge.

The woman was stricken after she told Robinson she was "probably a little for her (Winfrey)."

The federal lawsuit could be the biggest test yet of "veggie libel" laws. Those laws, on the books in more than a dozen states, are designed to protect agricultural products from false and disparaging statements.

Robinson said she anticipated that there would be 150 hours of testimony, divided roughly evenly between the two sides. That means the trial could last about five weeks.

Robinson also issued a summary judgment dismissing King World Productions as a defendant in the suit. The judge said King World was only the distributor and had nothing to do with its planning and production.


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