Thursday, September 25, 2003

McDonald's suits given fat chance

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Want fries with that lawsuit?

Twice this year, a judge in New York has thrown out a class-action suit blaming McDonald's for making the teen plaintiffs in the lawsuits fat. The suits were dismissed after the judge said the plaintiffs couldn't prove that McDonald's misled consumers, and that consumers couldn't blame the restaurant if they ate there willingly.

Suits often lack merit

In the most recent decision, issued earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet rejected a request that the plaintiffs be allowed to re-file the suit that the fast-food chain violated the state's consumer protection laws and used deceptive advertising.

Thomas Bezanson, who heads the product liability division for Chadbourne & Parke, a law firm in New York, said fast-food liability lawsuits generally lack merit.

"Which is not to say that food providers couldn't across-the-board do a more careful job of helping everyone eat in a more healthy fashion," Bezanson said.

The problem for plaintiffs is that their alleged injuries - obesity and related health problems - can't be traced to a single food product, such as a Big Mac or Whopper or Burrito Supreme, he said. People's diets are so varied that any number of items, including the homemade stuff, could make them fat.

Risks are well known

The other issue is that plaintiffs can't tie the injury to a particular defect in the product. They can't, for example, blame the special sauce on a Big Mac, Bezanson said.

And it's hard for plaintiffs to argue that they didn't know they were eating fatty, salty foods when they were wolfing down all those burgers and fries, he said.

"The risks that attend eating those kinds of food are so well-known that they're impossible to deny," Bezanson said.

If food suppliers were to be held accountable, the results could be "bizarre," he said: Restaurant operators could be held responsible for rationing customers' access to high-fat foods, or customers could have to sign releases or waivers when they ordered.

"Society faces issues that are not always best handled by the courts," Bezanson said. "They often end up in court, of course, because, to be frank, there's a lot of money to be made there."

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