First civil lawsuit starts in China milk scandal

AP News
Posted: Nov 28, 2009 4:39 AM

A court is hearing the country's first civil lawsuit by a man whose child was sickened in China's vast tainted milk scandal, state media reported Saturday.

At least six children died last year after drinking contaminated baby formula and more than 300,000 were sickened in one of the country's worst food safety crises.

Parents and lawyers have reported pressure from government officials not to pursue lawsuits over the tainted milk, so the start of the trial Friday was seen as a breakthrough.

"It's a little progress," said Beijing-based lawyer Xu Zhiyong, who told The Associated Press on Saturday that he attended the trial.

He said courts across China have accepted just six such lawsuits, including Friday's. Xu said he and other lawyers are representing about 200 cases, but other families have dropped lawsuits after reaching compensation deals. Xu has criticized the deals, saying the payout was not enough.

Friday's trial brings "a ray of hope" for the rule of law in China, he and another lawyer, Peng Jian, wrote on Xu's blog Friday.

The China Daily report said Ma Xuexin of central Henan province sued Sanlu Group Co., the dairy company at the heart of the scandal, for compensation after his 20-month-old boy fell sick.

The report said the trial will continue Dec. 9 at the Shunyi District People's Court in Beijing after Judge Zhang Nan asked both sides for more evidence.

A man answering the phone at the court Saturday said he knew nothing about the trial.

China on Tuesday executed a dairy farmer and a milk salesman for their roles in the scheme to boost profits by lacing milk powder with the industrial chemical melamine. Nineteen other people have been convicted and received lesser sentences.

Melamine can cause kidney stones and kidney failure.

Ma told the court his son suffered from a kidney stone after consuming milk powder made by the now-defunct Sanlu, which was one of China's biggest dairies before the scandal.

Sanlu and a local Longhua supermarket that sold the packets, however, told the court they should not be held responsible because the government already has set up a compensation plan for victims, the China Daily reported.

Families were offered a one-time payout _ ranging from 2,000 yuan ($293) to 200,000 yuan ($29,000), depending on the severity of the case _ to not pursue lawsuits related to the scandal, lawyers said at the time.