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House Tightens Belt on Fatty Food Suits

March 11, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Go ahead and super-size -- but don't expect to sue over for your expanding waistline.

So said the House of Representatives Wednesday in approving a bill to prohibit lawsuits seeking to hold restaurants liable for a customer's weight gain.

The "Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act" now goes to the Senate, where its prospects are uncertain.

The measure, approved 276 to 139, is part of a larger effort by President Bush and congressional Republicans to curtail what they regard as a barrage of frivolous suits. But the debate also highlighted growing concern on Capitol Hill about obesity, coming one day after a report that found obesity is closing in on smoking as the nation's leading cause of preventable death.

The bill was introduced after a high-profile lawsuit, filed in summer 2002, sought to blame McDonald's for a patron's weight gain. The suit was dismissed, but the food industry lobbied for the federal legislation.

"The gist of the legislation is that there should be common sense in a food court, not blaming other people in a legal court," said Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.), the bill's sponsor.

"Americans are eating themselves to death and looking for someone to blame," said Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). "Suing Burger King is not going to improve anyone's health."

But John F. Banzhaf III, a George Washington University law professor who has sued fast-food chains, said he expected the bill to die in the Senate.

Although the House last year approved legislation to limit medical malpractice awards and shield gun makers and sellers from suits related to gun violence, similar bills have run into resistance in the Senate.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that he hoped the Republican leadership would take up measures "to help create good-paying jobs and not waste the Senate's time on a bill that would change the laws of each of the 50 states in response to one dismissed lawsuit."

Critics of the House bill, such as Consumers Union, contend that the threat of litigation has encouraged the food industry to think healthier. McDonald's, for example, recently announced that it was dropping "super-size" fries and drinks from its menu.

If the bill becomes law, Banzhaf said, "resourceful lawyers" will find ways to get around its barriers -- just as he said they did in pressing suits against tobacco companies.

The Republicans in the California delegation were joined by Democrats Calvin Dooley of Hanford, Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Ellen O. Tauscher of Alamo in backing the bill. All other Democrats opposed it, except for Dennis A. Cardoza of Atwater, Jane Harman of Venice and Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who did not vote.

Democrats who opposed the bill called it a GOP effort to strike at a favorite target -- trial lawyers who are a significant source of campaign contributions to Democrats -- rather than deal with the problem of obesity.

"Only with this Republican leadership would an effort to promote personal responsibility begin with allowing companies to be irresponsible without accountability,'' said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.).

She urged the House instead to take up her bill requiring fast-food chains to list calories on menus.

The bill's opponents questioned whether the problem of obesity-related lawsuits was serious enough to warrant congressional intervention.

"This legislation is an unnecessary response to a completely imagined problem," said Rep. Pete Stark (D-Hayward).

The bill applies only to obesity-related claims, Keller said. Lawsuits can go forward, he said, if someone gets sick from eating a tainted hamburger. Nor, he said, does the measure preclude suits for false advertising and mislabeling.

David S. Casey Jr., president of the Assn. of Trial Lawyers of America, called it a "ridiculous solution to a nonexistent problem." Noting that obesity-related lawsuits have been dismissed, he said, "It is not the role of Congress to do what the courts themselves are already doing."

However, Steven C. Anderson, president and chief executive of the National Restaurant Assn., said in a statement: "The notion of holding restaurants and food companies legally responsible for choices all of us freely make each day, such as what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat, is absurd."

The White House issued a statement in support of the bill.

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