- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

Don't blame McDonald's that your children are fat.
So says U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet, who dismissed a lawsuit yesterday that blamed the McDonald's Corp. fast-food chain for obesity in children.
Judge Sweet said the plaintiffs, including a 14-year-old girl who stands 4-foot-10 and weighs 170 pounds, failed to show that customers were unaware that eating too many Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets and Egg McMuffins could be unhealthy.
He also cited concerns the case could "spawn thousands of similar 'McLawsuits'" against all types of restaurants.
"This opinion is guided by the principle that legal consequences should not attach to the consumption of hamburgers and other fast-food fare unless consumers are unaware of the dangers of eating such food," Judge Sweet said.
"If consumers know the potential ill-health effect of eating at McDonald's, they cannot blame McDonald's if they, nonetheless, choose to satiate their appetite with a surfeit of supersized McDonald's products."
The judge threw out the suit in its entirety, but he ruled the plaintiffs could refile some of their claims in Manhattan, N.Y., federal court if they could show there are dangers to eating McDonald's food that are not commonly known.
The plaintiffs' attorney could not be reached for comment, but other supporters of the movement against so-called Big Food weighed in.
"This was really a precedent-setting case in that it started the debate about holding Big Food responsible for its role in obesity," said Mindy Kursban, chief attorney for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a Washington-based group that monitors consumers' eating habits.
The suit was one of at least four cases filed against McDonald's and other fast-food chains over obesity. At least two cases have been dropped and another is pending.
Opponents of the lawsuit that Judge Sweet threw out yesterday described it as the equivalent of a legal belly-flop, engineered primarily to fatten the wallets of a few ambitious trial lawyers.
"Anyone with an IQ higher than room temperature understands that the best way to stay healthy is to enjoy a variety of foods in moderation and, of course, to exercise regularly," said Richard Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom, in a written statement.
Mr. Berman's group, which is funded by the restaurant and food-and-beverage industries, has also opposed efforts by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals to restrict the fast-food industry.
"It's a shame that the courts had to waste a lot of time and money just to teach a few showboating lawyers what the rest of us have known since kindergarten," Mr. Berman's statement said.
McDonald's said it has been providing nutritional information about its food for 30 years, and hailed the decision as a victory for common sense.
"We trusted the court to use its common sense to dismiss this claim. That's exactly what the judge has done. Common sense has prevailed. We said from the beginning that this was a frivolous lawsuit. Today's ruling confirms that fact," the company said in a written statement.
A group of overweight children who ate at two McDonald's restaurants in the Bronx, N.Y., the plaintiffs sought unspecified damages, blaming McDonald's for health problems including diabetes, coronary disease, high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol.
Judge Sweet's ruling said McDonald's had rightfully pointed out that the case was the first of its kind to reach this stage in federal court and could result in thousands of copycat cases.
The judge noted that Americans spend more than $110 billion on fast food each year, and cited studies showing that on any given day in the United States, almost one in four adults visits a fast-food restaurant.
"The potential for lawsuits is even greater given the numbers of persons who eat food prepared at other restaurants in addition to those serving fast food," Judge Sweet said, citing reports that show almost half of the American food dollar is spent on food eaten away from home.
He said the court had a duty to "limit the legal consequences of wrongs to a controllable degree and to protect against crushing exposure to liability."
Corporate defense attorneys said the ruling should discourage similar suits for a time, but predicted personal-injury lawyers would eventually bring new cases.
"They are a talented and determined group of attorneys not to be underestimated. There will be new ones, you can be sure of it," said Thomas Bezanson, a partner at Chadbourne & Parke LLP, a New York law firm that represented the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. in a series of legal battles between tobacco companies and state governments.
Ms. Kursban said the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is proceeding with a lawsuit filed in December against Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest chicken producer, over deceptive advertising practices.
"We do not feel we have lost any momentum," she said.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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