By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz won a legal victory after a judge dismissed a lawsuit alleging he violated a Georgia food libel law after making claims on his show that some imported olive oil sold in U.S. supermarkets could be fake.
The New Jersey-based North American Olive Oil Association filed the lawsuit against Oz last November in the state court in Fulton County, Georgia, seeking an unspecified amount in damages and payment for the group's legal fees.
The group accused Oz, who hosts the syndicated "The Dr. Oz Show," of violating a largely untested food libel law when he stated on a show that aired last May that 80 percent of the extra virgin olive oil imported into the country "isn't the real deal" and "may even be fake."
The group also complained that the show failed to disclose that its featured guest and "certified oleologist" Maia Hirschbein is employed by the California Olive Ranch, which competes directly with foreign olive oil makers.
"We value the confidence our viewers place in us every day, including this program which fairly reported on the mislabeling of extra-virgin olive oil," Dr. Oz said in a statement. He added the lawsuit was just an attempt to "stifle the show" in its pursuit of truth about what is in America's food.
Oz and his production company sought to have the complaint dismissed, saying the statements he made were protected under an "Anti-SLAPP" law that shields people from having their free speech limited through abuse of the judicial process.
The judge agreed late Thursday with the show's arguments for dismissal.
"The court has grave concerns that the motivation for the present action falls squarely within the purpose of the anti-SLAPP statute as an attempt to chill speech," wrote Judge Alford Dempsey, Jr.
He added that he found there were "no statements made of any kind on the show that olive oil is unsafe for human consumption" and that the group failed to show "a scintilla of evidence" to support claims it suffered any financial injury.
A spokeswoman for the North American Olive Oil Association said the group is disappointed by the ruling.
"Nothing in the decision lends credence to the unsubstantiated attacks on olive oil made on The Dr. Oz segment and we are evaluating our options for appeal," she said.
Georgia is among 13 states that have adopted food libel laws, which generally have a lower legal burden of proof compared with traditional libel laws and make it easier for food companies to sue people who make disparaging remarks about their products.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Alistair Bell)