GREENSBORO, N.C. -- A federal judge must now decide whether Food Lion gets all, some or none of a $5.5 million punitive damages award against the ABC television network.
ommitted during a 1992 "PrimeTime Live" investigation of the grocery chain's sanitation practices.
Food Lion wants to preserve the award, while ABC has asked U.S. District Court Judge Carlton Tilley to throw it out, saying it's unconstitutional and harmful to a free press.
It wasn't clear how soon the judge might decide on the matter. SN is a unit of ABC, which is part of Walt Disney Co.
"Making false representations in order to get into a position to see, report or photograph what has been concealed has been an integral part of investigative journalism for centuries," ABC attorney Nat Lewin told the court Tuesday. "This opens the door to permit these kinds of lawsuits and threatens future investigative reports."
Food Lion, meanwhile, argued that the press is not above the law.
"Let's talk about what ABC was punished for in this case," Food Lion attorney Richard Wyatt said. "They were punished for fraud."
Two ABC producers admitted that they lied to get jobs in Food Lion stores and used hidden cameras to record activities there. The results of their investigation were broadcast in November 1992, accusing Food Lion of bleaching ham and selling spoiled meat.
Food Lion has publicly denied ABC's allegations, but did not challenge the truth of the broadcast in court with a libel claim. Instead, the grocery chain attacked the way in which ABC got the story.
The case sparked a national debate about journalistic ethics -- whether journalists should be allowed to misrepresent themselves to gather news.
The jury found that Food Lion suffered only $1,400 in actual damages from ABC's investigation. However, the jury hit ABC for $5.5 million in punitive damages, nearly 4,000 times the actual harm caused to Food Lion.
ABC argues that the punitive damages award does not bear any "reasonable relationship" to actual damages, citing U.S. Supreme Court decisions to strike down other awards that were only 500 times as great as the actual harm.