The legal high-wire act begun a week ago when one overweight New Yorker decided to sue four fast-food restaurant chains has matured into a full-fledged three-ring circus — complete with side bets and color commentators. Few notable talk show hosts or syndicated columnists have resisted the temptation to weigh in on the subject; as with most blockbuster news stories, Caesar Barber’s legal complaint has become a cultural touchstone for people with all sorts of views.
Writing in the Washington Times, Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist recoils at the thought that “anti-obesity activists, tax-and-spend politicians, and trial lawyers” are targeting Big Fat for “vilification, regulation, tax increases and litigation.” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Mark Morford, however, is impatient to dance on restaurants’ graves. Maybe this is “the first tiny salvo,” he hopes, “one organic free-range grass-fed seed that might grow into a full flower of major, more appropriate litigation” and “targeted legislation.”
Some are questioning the wisdom of Barber’s choice of target. Noted author (The Death of Common Sense) Philip K. Howard says that he doesn’t think quick service restaurants are the most tort-worthy. “It should be the ice cream company,” he offers, presumably with a straight face. “At least with fast food there are vegetables… And what about coffee? It’s acid, and its addictive.” The Boston Herald is also floating alternate defendants on its editorial page: “[W]hy not The Palm and the Capital Grille with their even more seductive slabs of red meat? The only difference, after all, is the price and the ambiance.”
This week, Newsweek casually mentioned that Northeastern University law professor Richard Daynard is “holding a closed-door strategy session for nearly 100 lawyers” interested in lawsuits against food providers. “Five years ago,” he says, “when we said we’d take junk-food makers to court, people laughed.” Kelly Brownell, the father of the “Twinkie tax,” wasn’t one of them. He recently told the Australian Sunday Times that he sees “no difference between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel.” Brownell says that activists “need to start thinking of this in a more militant way.”
The reference to multi-billion-dollar tobacco lawsuits is lost on just about no one. Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker blames the “anti-tobacco brigade” for convincing the public to believe that “we’re all victims.” No matter what you put into your body, she jibes, “it’s not your fault. And there’s money to be made.”
And there’s the rub, offers Aussie Paul Sheehan in the Sydney Morning Herald. The Caesar Barber lawsuit, he writes, is “symptomatic of a demographic devolution even more insidious than the obesity bomb and just as disruptive: the litigation-victimology contagion.” Sheehan identifies Barber as “a fat, undisciplined opportunist” and asks perhaps the most important question in this entire spectacle: “What ever happened to the land of the free?”