On February 26, 1998, Oprah Winfrey was cleared in a high-profile lawsuit launched by a group of Texas cattle ranchers.
The cattlemen from Amarillo, Texas sued Oprah because of comments she made on her massively popular talk show in April 1996.
During the episode called “Dangerous Food,” Oprah heard from a guest about the possible dangers of getting Mad Cow Disease from eating certain kinds of ground beef.
At the time fears of Mad Cow Disease were growing because of reports that 10 people in Britain had died of the brain-wasting ailment, which they contracted from eating contaminated beef.
Alarmed by the risk Oprah asked her audience, “Now, doesn’t that concern you all a little bit right there, hearing that? It has just stopped me cold from eating another burger. I’m stopped.”
Within two weeks of the episode, US beef prices began dropping and eventually hit a 10 year low leading some ranchers to point the finger at Oprah for the drop.
Eventually a group of powerful Texas cattle barons filed a lawsuit against the talk show Queen blaming her for millions in lost business as a result of statements they believed were false and defamatory.
The trial took place in Amarillo, Texas over a six-week period beginning in January 1998 and during that time Oprah continued hosting her daily show, broadcasting from the panhandle city.
Larry Lemons, a Texas reporter who covered the trial told Buzzfeed the people of Amarillo were starstruck. “It was such a bizarre time for most people because of the fact that Oprah had brought her show to town and celebrities were everywhere.”
During the trial Oprah Winfrey took the witness stand inside a courtroom packed with journalists, local residents and Oprah supporters including her friend, poet Maya Angelou.
Oprah told the jurors, “I am in this courtroom to defend my name. I feel in my heart I’ve never done a malicious act against any human being.”
In the end, the jury of eight women and four men decided that Winfrey along with her Harpo Productions Inc. and Howard Lyman, the guest on her show, did not hurt the four Amarillo ranching families and their cattle companies.
Leaving the courthouse Oprah pumped her fist in the air and said, “My reaction is that free speech not only lives, it rocks!”
Oprah not only won the case she also discovered a future television star. During the trial her legal team hired Dr. Phil to be her jury consultant and a friendship between the two led to regular appearances on the Oprah show and eventually Dr. Phil’s own popular TV program.
For more stories from the 90s, check out my podcast “History of the 90s” available on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at http://www.curiouscast.ca