Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The House yesterday passed a bill that would ban obesity-related lawsuits in state and federal courts, giving greater protection to the food and restaurant industries.

The measure, dubbed the “cheeseburger bill,” was approved 306-120 yesterday afternoon.

“I’m pleased that the U.S. House has agreed that we should be practicing common sense in the food court and not blaming others in a legal court,” said Rep. Ric Keller, Florida Republican, and the bill’s sponsor.

Mr. Keller’s bill prevents consumers from suing food makers, sellers or trade associations for injuries related to weight gain, obesity or health conditions related to obesity.

However, the bill does not restrict consumers from bringing lawsuits against food makers or restaurants for injuries that come from tainted food, deceptive advertising or misleading food labeling.

Yesterday’s vote was the second time Congress has tried to ban obesity lawsuits. The House passed the same type of bill 276-139 in March 2004, but that bill was stalled in the Senate. So far, at least 18 states have banned obesity lawsuits, with more considering a “cheeseburger bill.”

Mr. Keller did not vote for his bill yesterday because of an extended hospital stay in Orlando, Fla., to test for heart arrhythmia, or an irregular heartbeat, said spokesman Bryan Malenius.

Mr. Malenius called the incident a “non-cheeseburger related hospitalization,” adding that Mr. Keller was in good condition. “We are excited about the margin this bill passed by. It gives us a lot of momentum heading into the Senate,” which previously has halted tort reform bills, he said.

The Senate introduced a similar bill, which is still pending, in April.

George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf III, who has led the trial lawyers group filing obesity lawsuits for the past few years, said he expected the House to pass the bill because few consumer health advocacy groups have spoken out against it.

“I think it’s a panic and rush to judgment,” he said, adding the six obesity-related lawsuits that have been filed would not have been affected by the bill.

Plaintiffs in those cases have used claims that include deceptive advertising and marketing, misrepresentation and failure to warn, he said.

The National Restaurant Association was encouraged that the vote yesterday picked up more Democratic support.

“We have a tough hill to climb on the Senate side but we’re optimistic,” said President and Chief Executive Officer Steven C. Anderson.

Democrats and one Republican who opposed the bill said the measure was not needed because the judicial system would throw out “frivolous” obesity lawsuits.

“I am not a fan of fat litigation either, but sometimes we need to be patient enough to let the institutes work,” said Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat.

But supporters of the bill argued the food and restaurant industries should not be held liable for consumers’ overconsumption.”These lawsuits do nothing but enable consumers to feel powerless,” said Rep. Chris Cannon, Utah Republican.

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