U.S. Appeals Court Panel Reinstates Obesity Lawsuit Against McDonald’s
A three-judge panel from a U.S. appeals court on Tuesday reinstated a lawsuit against McDonald's alleging that the fast-food chain hides the health risks of its products, the Chicago Tribune reports (Alexander, Chicago Tribune, 1/26). Attorney Samuel Hirsh in November 2002 filed the lawsuit, which sought class-action status, on behalf of two New York City teenage girls who allegedly have experienced health problems -- such as obesity, diabetes and hypertension -- as a result of McDonald's products.
In January 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Sweet in New York dismissed that version of the lawsuit, ruling that the law cannot protect consumers from their own excesses and rejecting claims that fast food is addictive like tobacco. However, Sweet allowed the plaintiffs to amend and refile the lawsuit and recommended ways to show that McDonald's deceives customers.
In September 2003, Sweet dismissed a revised lawsuit alleging that the fast-food chain deceived customers with its advertisements and that its food caused diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, saying that the prosecuting attorneys made no attempt to "isolate the particular effect of McDonald's foods" on the plaintiffs' health. He added that the plaintiffs "made no explicit allegations that they witnessed any particular deceptive advertisements" (California Healthline, 9/5/03).
According to the opinion -- written by U.S. District Judges Jed Rakoff, Amalia Kearse and Guido Calabresi -- Sweet should not have concluded that the plaintiffs did not show evidence linking McDonald's products to their alleged health problems. The opinion continues, "This, however, is the sort of information that is appropriately the subject of discovery," which Sweet did not allow under his ruling (Hurtado, Long Island Newsday, 1/26).
The opinion stated that the plaintiffs only need a "bare-bones notice pleading requirement" to require McDonald's to provide previously secret company documents under pre-trial discovery. The decision sends the case back to Sweet for further action (Chicago Tribune, 1/26).
McDonald's spokesperson Walt Riker said, "As we have consistently said, common sense tells you this particular case makes no sense. We are confident this frivolous suit will once again be dismissed. The key issue remains personal responsibility and making informed choices" (Becker/Glovin, Bloomberg/Washington Post, 1/26).
The company said in a statement Tuesday, "[The] ruling, which is strictly procedural, simply delays the inevitable conclusion that this case is without merit" (Long Island Newsday, 1/26).
George Washington University Law School professor John Banzhaf, who has helped bring obesity lawsuits to court, said the decision "is going to scare ... McDonald's and every other fast-food company. The second-highest court in the land has just held not only that obesity lawsuits aren't frivolous, but that they are meritorious and can go forward."
He added, "The decision opens the door not only to many more obesity lawsuits but also to unearthing previously secret documents, which may help plaintiffs persuade juries to hold fast-food companies liable for their fair share of the expenses of the obesity to which they contribute" (Chicago Tribune, 1/26).