Personal injury obesity lawsuits have restaurant owners fighting back

Personal injury obesity lawsuits have restaurant owners fighting back

In 2001, the surgeon general issued a “call to action,” warning that obesity could takeover any health progress Americans have achieved in recent decades.  The obesity problem in the U.S. is significant.  Adding billions of dollars to the nation’s healthcare tab by increasing the prevalence of obesity-related diseases, between 1987 and 2002, the share of private health spending attributed to obesity soared more than tenfold, from $3.6 billion to $36.5 billion, according to a study published in a June 2005 Health Affairs. 

In 2002, a lawsuit accused McDonalds of making two New York teenage customers fat and unhealthy, making it the second case in two months trying to hold food companies responsible for the obesity epidemic in the U.S.  Food and restaurant companies quickly began fighting back, afraid of what the obesity related personal injury lawsuits would set off.  Led by the National Restaurant Association and its 50 state organizations, which represents large chains, like McDonalds, as well as small independent businesses, the companies have since proven to be successful.

Food and restaurant companies realize how serious obesity is, with 30 percent of American adults considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and at risk for many related disorders like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis.  Twenty states in the last three years have enacted versions of a “common sense consumption” law, which prevent lawsuits seeking personal injury damages because of obesity from being tried in their courts. 

Eleven more states currently have similar legislation pending.  Restaurant owners and food company executives visited state lawmakers, testified at hearings and steered contributions to key lawmakers, all to push for laws that would make pursuing an obesity related personal injury lawsuit more difficult.  In Texas, Kraft and Coca-Cola executives showed up to lobby for the state’s common sense consumption bill, which was signed into law last month. 

Consumer advocates are not happy with the laws, and Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest called it “shameful” that the food companies are trying to get exemptions from lawsuits.  Jacobson believes the courts will throw out suits they deem “frivolous”.  Because obesity is such a problem in the U.S., trial lawyers argue being able to pursue personal injury lawsuits can be the mechanism that promotes serious changes in the way food companies and restaurants play into the growing size of Americans. 

While the food and restaurant industry claims changes are being made, like adding more fruit and salad to menus, offering whole wheat bread as options and selling more bottled water, consumer advocates argue serious, drastic changes need to be made if any impact is going to be made on reversing obesity rates.  A spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association said that “lawsuits are just not productive,” but trial lawyers believe lawsuits are an effective way to get companies to change their operations and the types of products sold, when necessary. 

Even though the new laws make it difficult to pursue obesity related personal injury lawsuits, legal experts believe there will be lawsuits based on different types of litigation, including state consumer protection laws instead. 

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