Beware of high-fat tort-feasors

Posted: Jul 31, 2002 12:00 AM
Is any claim too ridiculous to be entertained by American courts? The latest outrage -- a class action suit by fast food foragers against the beguiling burger behemoths -- should make Jerry Springer proud, if not jealous. Caesar Barber is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit brought in a New York state court against McDonald's Corp., Burger King Corp., Wendy's International and KFC Corp. The claimants allege these chains injured them by enticing them (through deceptive advertising) to eat their "unhealthy" products. Mr. Barber, who frequented fast food restaurants four to five times a week before his first heart attack, says he was taken in by the fraudulent marketing. "They said, '100 percent beef.' I thought that meant it was good for you," said Barber, presumably not trying to be funny. "Those people in the advertisements don't really tell you what's in the food. It's all fat, fat and more fat. Now, I'm obese." (Maybe he should consider suing his parents instead for withholding the smart gene.) Barber's lawyer, Samuel Hirsch, also, I assume, in complete seriousness, reportedly said the burgers create a de facto addiction, or a "craving," especially in kids (ah yes, we must always mention the children) and the poor. "There is direct deception when someone omits telling people food digested is detrimental to their health," said Hirsch. Yes, and there's direct stupidity when someone has to be told that burgers and fries are a high-fat option. We can't just dismiss these claims out of hand -- at least not until the judge dismisses them out of court. They are an inevitable consequence of our society's increasing trend toward victimhood and the erosion of individual responsibility. With capitalism itself presently under attack because of the several high profile corporate scandals, we must take seriously further efforts to assault our free market system. So, we should listen when Mr. Hirsch says, "he hopes the lawsuit will force the fast-food industry to offer a greater variety to consumers, including vegetarian meals, smaller sizes and meals with fewer grams of fat." I guess it would be too much trouble for these victims to go to other restaurants that offer "healthier" alternatives or to eat at home. Nah, why do that when you can file suit and save yourself the trouble of doing all those dishes? Do you understand what the barrister is advocating here? In effect, he's hoping that the specter of onerous litigation will bully these restaurants into offering products that his clients want (or more accurately, that their doctors recommend), even if they aren't profitable. I mean we consumers, after all, do get what we (collectively) want in a free market system, do we not? For example, McDonald's, on its own, offered a lower fat burger for a while called the "Mclean." But they had to remove it from the menu because their customers, on the whole, wouldn't support it. It was their choice. They spoke with their (absence of) dollars. I suppose Mr. Hirsch and his litigants, in the mold of a Russian Commissar, would tell McDonald's that they have no business listening to their customers and must offer these products even if no one buys them. Perhaps the next step will be legislation forcing us to eat them. And, according to Neal D. Barnard, M.D., president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), this could just be the first in a series of lawsuits. The PCRM says that some doctors -- those who prescribe high-protein diets -- could be next. "Given the many health risks associated with meat-heavy, high protein diets, doctors who prescribe them could be assuming serious legal risk," said Mindy Kursban, PCRM's chief legal counsel. Not too long ago I would have been confident that such preposterous lawsuits would be summarily dismissed, but not any longer -- not in the current climate of million dollar verdicts against McDonalds for selling hot coffee and people feeling sorry for young adults orphaned after murdering their parents. We must understand that the problem is not just trial lawyers preying on society -- though more than a few of them are. They can't file suit without willing plaintiffs, and they can't sustain their cases without receptive judges and sympathetic juries. Sadly, these plaintiffs, judges and juries are simply a reflection of a society that has lost its fundamental appreciation for liberty and is following an inexorable path toward forfeiting all of it.