Thursday, October 16, 2003

Doctors and tort-reform advocates said yesterday that obesity-related lawsuits are costing companies millions in legal bills and doing little to trim the nation’s expanding waistline.

“The food police are now sounding the alarm and saying that the rise in obesity corresponds to the increased availability of fast food. What they want you to believe is that the food sellers are causing the obesity,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, during the first Senate hearing on a bill that would prohibit obesity-related suits from targeting the food industry.

The Common Sense for Consumption Act, introduced in July, seeks to stop what has been a growing movement in the past year, holding food servers and manufacturers liable for people’s weight gain.

A number of legal notices have been sent out to several companies in the $1 trillion food industry, and a New York lawyer unsuccessfully filed two lawsuits against fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. for contributing to his plaintiffs’ obesity and related health problems.

At the heart of the lawsuits is the argument that consumers are not aware of the fat content in the foods they buy.

Several public health advocates have argued that restaurants and food companies are not disclosing enough information about their products for consumers to make informed decisions.

Mr. McConnell defended his bill as the best chance of stopping “frivolous lawsuits” and promoting personal responsibility, adding that traditional claims citing adulterated food can move forward in the court system.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on administrative oversight and the courts, focused most of his questions on whether Congress should use its legislative power to change the court system.

“Should Congress be involved in an issue that is better left to the state governments?” he asked witnesses, noting that tort-reform bills in the past largely stalled in Congress.

But Washington lawyer Victor Schwartz said food supply crosses state lines and the issue would be better handled on the federal level.

“A nationwide policy by the elected body is necessary, not an arbitrary position by one judge in one particular court,” said Mr. Schwartz, who testified for the American Tort Reform Association, a D.C. nonprofit promoting liability reform.

Dr. Gerard Musante, founder of a weight-loss clinic in Durham, N.C., said the lawsuits will do nothing to lower the population’s weight “but enable consumers to feel powerless in a battle for maintaining one’s personal health.”

In addition to supporting the bill, he called for plaintiffs’ lawyers, Congress and food companies to hold a summit to address the rising rate of obesity in American adults.

Alabama restaurant owner Wayne Reaves said he is concerned that the lawsuits will push up liability-insurance premiums for his food products.

“Additionally, I fear for the [restaurant] industry and the impact these lawsuits could have on the economy,” he said.

While safeguarding the food industry from “abusive” lawsuits, Mr. McConnell said the law would lower soaring court-system costs.

The U.S. tort system cost $233 billion in 2002, $809 per U.S. citizen, according to a report by Tillinghast-Towers Perrin, a global management consulting firm.

The tort costs would continue rising but at a slower rate if obesity lawsuits were blocked from the courts, said Russel Sutter, author of the Tillinghast report.

“There are simply too many types of litigation out there for one to have a substantial impact,” he said.

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