- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

RICHMOND — The House of Delegates this week will debate a bill that would bar Virginians from suing fast-food makers with claims that their products have made them obese.

“If I choose to supersize and I don’t exercise and I become overweight and develop diabetes, I shouldn’t be able to turn around and sue the manufacturer of the food for my poor health decisions,” said Delegate Bill Janis, Henrico Republican who wrote the bill.

“You cannot sue your way to good health,” he said.

The bill will be up for debate on the House floor by Friday. Last week, the House Courts of Justice Committee passed the bill on a 10-9 vote.

Called the Litigation Reduction and Consumer Personal Responsibility Act, the bill specifically states that people cannot sue a manufacturer or seller of a “qualified food product” for an injury, potential injury or death resulting from consumption of the product and weight gain, obesity or any health condition related to being overweight.

A qualified food product is defined by the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and would include fast food sold at McDonald’s and other chains.

Only a small number of fast-food lawsuits have been filed in the United States, yet several states have passed legislation to prevent what lawmakers call “frivolous” lawsuits. So far, 14 states have passed similar legislation and 20 others are looking into it.

The Maryland General Assembly also is tackling the issue this year.

Delegate John S. Arnick, Baltimore County Democrat, said his bill, titled the “Common Sense Food Consumption Act,” is a preventive measure to keep the costly, frivolous lawsuits out of Maryland.

“It’s not a problem here yet and the states don’t want it to be a problem,” Mr. Arnick said.

He said his bill, which is pending in the House Judiciary Committee, has received little opposition, even from lawyers. “People have to be responsible sometimes for their own actions,” he said.

In 2003, a federal judge threw out two class-action lawsuits that claimed McDonald’s made people fat and that the fast-food restaurant chain misled customers into thinking its food was healthy. The judge ruled there was no evidence to support such claims and that consumers can’t blame McDonald’s because they can choose where they eat.

A general practice lawyer, Mr. Janis said he wants to “send a signal” that such lawsuits are not welcome.

He said frivolous lawsuits drive up the cost of items at fast-food restaurants and at the local grocery store.

Last year, Mr. Janis submitted a similar bill, which failed in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee because the legislation did not define the specific food products. That bill exempted from liability claims those companies that sell sugary foods.

The delegates who debated the bill used it as an opportunity to have a little fun last year.

Delegate Robert D. Hull, Falls Church Democrat, said targeting sweets made with sugar, butter or hydrogenated oils was a bad thing. “I’m a Little Debbie lover,” he said, quickly clarifying that he was talking about the snack cakes when the delegates erupted in laughter.

Mr. Hull later gave Mr. Janis a box of Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies. “Listed as the top ingredient is sugar, the very item we said might be hazardous,” Mr. Hull said, giving the pies as a “show of bipartisanship.”

A Senate bill intended to shield birth-control methods from being subject to the state’s abortion restrictions will be pulled today, its sponsor said.

Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple said yesterday she had no choice but withdraw her legislation after it was amended during floor debate to expand her tightly drawn definition of contraception.

“In fact, it may be more dangerous to abortion rights now because it would put an inadequate definition into the code,” said Mrs. Whipple, Arlington Democrat.

Her bill would legally define contraception as the prevention of the union of sperm and egg or attachment of an egg on the uterine wall.

Commonly prescribed birth-control pills prevent pregnancy through both means. Pro-life activists who contend that life begins at conception insist that denying a fertilized egg the opportunity to attach itself to the womb and develop as a fetus is a form of abortion.

Mrs. Whipple’s bill and a companion measure by Delegate Kristen J. Amundson, Fairfax County Democrat, would head off pro-life groups’ efforts to classify birth control pills as a form of abortion. That could subject obtaining the pills, intrauterine devices and other forms of birth-control to Virginia’s growing list of abortion restrictions, including parental notification and consent for girls under 18.

“The intent was to make it clear in the law that the restrictions that apply to abortion do not apply to normal means of birth control,” she said.

A floor amendment offered by Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis applied a less-specific dictionary definition of pregnancy. It was adopted largely along party lines in a 21-17 vote with one abstention.

“This allows for everyone’s definition of pregnancy to be what we live by in Virginia,” said Mrs. Davis, Fairfax County Republican. “The members of the General Assembly are not able to determine when life begins, and it’s important that contraception remain legal.”

Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax County Democrat, said the amendment would make it more difficult — and in some small towns impossible — for women to obtain legally prescribed birth control pills.

A bill that would impose a moratorium on executions failed yesterday in a Senate committee.

By a vote of 3-11, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee failed to report a bill by Sen. Henry L. Marsh III, Richmond Democrat, that would effectively end capital punishment in Virginia.

The bill met the same fate as scores of anti-death penalty measures have for years in the General Assembly.

But Mr. Marsh’s bill is one of a half-dozen or so death penalty measures before lawmakers at the start of an election year already notable for contentious disputes over the issue in the governor’s campaign.

This article is based in part on wire service reports

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