Remember the guy who sued fast-food restaurants for making him fat? He became a poster boy for frivolous litigation.
But that hasn’t stopped the trial lawyers who see dollar signs where most of us see dinner. Thankfully, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a “cheeseburger bill” to curtail an expected onslaught of litigation in this obesity blame-game.
President Bush says he would sign the cheeseburger bill, but its fate in the Senate appears uncertain. Senators with close ties to trial lawyers, like former presidential candidate John Edwards (D., N.C.), are expected to erect significant roadblocks.
So halting obesity lawsuits may ultimately fall to states like Pennsylvania, where members of the states’ house have introduced their own version of the cheeseburger bill, the “Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act.”
At least 19 other U.S. states have passed or are considering bills to thwart obesity lawsuits. The Georgia House of Representatives approved its version, 169-0. A similar vote in Florida was 112 to 1.
Predictably, the lawyers are livid. Only a couple of fast-food liability cases have been filed so far, argues the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), so these bills are “a nonsolution to a nonissue.”
A small but well-funded cabal of lawsuit-happy crusaders wants Big Food to become the next Big Tobacco. Last summer they gathered in Boston at a conference “intended to encourage and support litigation against the food industry.” Now that their plans are in jeopardy, the self-described “food police” at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) are also downplaying the threat of obesity suits. It was a different story at the Boston conference, where CSPI’s chief carrot-cruncher advised the lawyers to file “a whole lot of lawsuits.”
Shortly thereafter, advocate John F. Banzhaf 3d and CSPI jointly threatened ice-cream parlors with lawsuits for failing to caution dessert eaters that ice cream contains fat and sugar. Banzhaf has put milk companies on notice for not sufficiently explaining that whole milk has more fat that skim milk. He’s talked about suing pork farmers for their slogan “the other white meat.” He even threatened to haul fast-food restaurants into court for failing to warn customers that their food not only tasted great but was also “addictive.”
True, most judges will simply toss out these frivolous suits. But Banzhaf told CBS Sunday Morning in 2002 that “we’re going to sue them and sue them and sue them.” In a 2003 New York Daily News article, he said, “Somewhere, there is going to be a judge and a jury that will buy this, and once we get the first verdict… it will open the floodgates.” This crusade will unfairly force restaurants to spend millions defending themselves. And those expenses are ultimately passed on to consumers.
CSPI argues that “consumers deserve to have their day in court if they believe that the foods they ate contributed to obesity.” But consumers themselves disagree. Eighty-nine percent of Americans think fast-food restaurants shouldn’t have to pay for their customers’ lack of self-control, according to a July 2003 Gallup poll.
The trial-lawyer lobby is working overtime to keep this attitude out of the jury box. ATLA’s latest “Litigating Tort Cases” playbook advises plaintiffs’ attorneys to exclude the “personal responsibility juror” – anyone who believes “people should be self-reliant, responsible, and self-disciplined” and “must be accountable for their conduct.”
Litigators know they can’t win obesity lawsuits until their escapades begin to look a little less frivolous to the average person. To persuade us we are the unwitting victims of convenient, inexpensive, and tasty food, lawsuit advocates have begun to demonize food companies and restaurants.
To prevent such legal terrorism from coming here, Pennsylvania lawmakers should pass the “cheeseburger bill” – and hold the lawsuits.