For the last year and a half, George Washington University law professor John Banzhaf, who treats the epithet "legal terrorist" as a compliment, has been bragging that fast food restaurants and other purveyors of fattening comestibles are running scared because of the obesity litigation he champions. McDonald's et al. ought to be worried, he said, because already there have been "five successful fat lawsuits."
But now that Congress is considering a ban on lawsuits that blame food manufacturers or sellers for making people fat, Banzhaf is eager to contradict himself. In a press release issued the day before the House approved the Personal Responsibility in Food Consumption Act by a 2-to-1 margin, he said the bill "is surely premature, because there has been only one obesity lawsuit, and it was dismissed by a federal judge."
Before Congress passes legislation like this, Banzhaf said, "there should be a real history of abuse which must be corrected, not orchestrated panic based upon one failed lawsuit and some quoted-out-of-context rhetoric." Having orchestrated the panic and provided the rhetoric, he knows whereof he speaks.
Contrary to the impression Banzhaf left, none of the five "victories" he kept citing involved a plaintiff who blamed a company for his obesity. The biggest case, cooked up by some of Banzhaf's law students at G.W., faulted McDonald's for advertising that its French fries were cooked in vegetable oil while failing to mention that they were precooked in beef fat, an omission that understandably upset Hindus and vegetarians. The case, which led to a $10 million settlement in 2002, was a "fat lawsuit" only in the sense that it involved cooking fat.
Attempts to hold restaurants responsible for their customers' waistlines have been far less successful -- as Banzhaf now emphasizes, lest the Senate follow the House's lead and put an early end to the litigious speculation that has brought him the publicity he craves. The first such case, filed by New York City attorney Samuel Hirsch, whom Banzhaf has served as an "informal adviser," met with such widespread derision that it was essentially laughed out of court.
The plaintiff, you may recall, was a 56-year-old maintenance worker named Caesar Barber, who was five feet, 10 inches tall and weighed 272 pounds. The main problem with Barber, who continued a diet consisting largely of burgers and fries despite a heart attack and warnings from his doctor, was that his stupidity was literally unbelievable.