- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The House yesterday banned lawsuits that would blame fast-food companies for their customers’ weight gain and other health problems.

The measure, dubbed the “cheeseburger bill” and passed by a vote of 276-139, prohibits any lawsuits against food servers, manufacturers and distributors regarding obesity or diseases from weight gain.

“This is a clear, bipartisan victory where you saw a lot of support from Southern Democrats,” said Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, the bill’s sponsor.

The Bush administration yesterday strongly backed Mr. Keller’s bill, saying that it would “help prevent abuse of the legal system and help curb the growing problem of frivolous lawsuits in the United States.”

But the measure does not protect the $1 trillion food industry from deceptive advertising or faulty manufacturing suits. That means a fast-food restaurant can be sued for selling tainted french fries. But consumers cannot hold the restaurant liable for their weight gain from eating too many fries.

The passage comes a day after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that obesity is the second-biggest killer in the U.S., taking 400,000 lives annually. Tobacco is the leading killer.

Critics on the House floor yesterday said the bill is fixing a problem that does not exist.

Rep. Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, called the bill “an unnecessary distraction for the American public.”

The one lawsuit brought against fast-food giant McDonald’s Corp. was quickly dismissed, Mr. McGovern said. “The legal system worked. This bill is retroactive.”

Rep Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, added that the Industry’s push for personal responsibility “allows food companies to be irresponsible.”

Mrs. DeLauro, who recently introduced a bill that would require nutritional labeling in restaurants, said Congress must put forth a “multifaceted effort” in combating obesity.

Mr. Keller argued that obesity lawsuits would drive up food prices for consumers and insurance rates for restaurants.

The bill is expected to have a tougher time in the Senate, which has killed several tort reform bills in the past. The most recent lawsuit-reform bill that was dropped last week would have protected gun manufacturers from suits.

The Senate voted 90-8 after a provision was added to extend the 1994 ban on assault rifles.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, introduced a similar version of the House bill that is still in a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee.

Mr. McConnell is hoping to bring the bill to a vote this session.

George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf III, the leader for trial lawyers bringing the obesity suits, said the measure will not stop trial lawyers from suing the food industry.

“This bill really affects one lawsuit out of six that have been filed,” against fast-food chains and food companies, Mr. Banzhaf said.

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