Thursday, March 24, 2005

Shielding the restaurant industry from lawsuits

Sixteen states have passed laws protecting the fast food industry from consumer lawsuits for obesity and food-related illnesses, even if there were evidence of seller wrongdoing. Others are following quickly. I'm offering the reasonable reader the following debate, from which to try to discern the level-headed party.

Here is Michele Simon, who writes at CorpWatch this week:
According to Joanne Doroshow, executive director for the Center for Justice and Democracy, previous attempts by certain industries to single themselves out for special liability protection have proven to be a successful tort reform strategy. For example, Congress passed a bill in 1994 to shield the aviation industry and another in 1998 that provides immunity to suppliers of medical implants. Also, she says, “gun manufacturers keep trying, year after year, to get special liability protection.”

“Many industries are fearful that if they have been engaging in misconduct over the years that they are going to be subject to liability, which of course they should be,” says Doroshow. She explains that industries will often “see a problem looming on the horizon in terms of their liability exposure.”

Experts say that these bills could make these companies completely unaccountable to the public. Mindy Kursban, executive director and general counsel for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Questions regarding the role of the food industry in our nation’s obesity epidemic are just now being brought to light. Rather than immediately absolve the entire industry of all potential liability, we should learn more about how they have contributed to this public health crisis," she said.

Here is the restaurant-industry lobbying group, the Center for Consumer Freedom:
A cabal of fat-cat trial lawyers are poised to launch an onslaught of frivolous lawsuits to cash in on our diet. From restaurants and food producers, to doctors, schools,
and even parents, no target is too big or small for these sharks who see dollar signs where the rest of us see dinner. Their strategy is clear: In order to woo a jury into dismissing any vestige of common sense, they have to shift the blame for America's allegedly burgeoning bellies away from a lack personal responsibility and onto those with the deepest pockets.
If I were faced with a level-headed advocate for carefully crafted tort reform laws, the economist in me might be forced to acknowledge certain points. Lawsuits are not an ideal vehicle for progress on this issue. In an environment of adequate access to fast food ingredient and nutrition information, the sound economic point of view might favor relying on consumers to protect their own interests.

But the same restaurant industry that is ramming these corporate shield laws down the public's throat, prematurely, is also trying to smoosh any effort to seek fast food restaurant labeling. I am sure you would rather see a good compromise on the table, as I would. But the bills being enacted now are a dreadful example of lawmaker obedience to big business commands rather than the public interest. You may want to check your own state's status and take action to make sure your state isn't next.

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